Thursday, September 03, 2009

Skill Flow Report

If at all possible, I intend to take a more aggressive stance against established brain drain policies. Two recent posts (here and here) are representative of the rhetoric I will employ. As I've explored dominant workforce development policy narratives, I've become more confident in my initial hypothesis. Like education, geographic mobility empowers labor.

This paper questions, from first principles, the traditional view that reducing skilled worker emigration is a legitimate goal of development policy. It begins from the most influential mainstream definitions of “development” as an improvement in the living standards and substantive freedoms experienced by people. Properly conceived, development is almost always harmed by policies that seek to limit skilled workers’ movement rather than to alter the underlying causes of skilled workers’ decisions to move. Development outcomes often attributed to movement are more meaningfully attributed to the underlying forces that cause skilled workers to choose movement.

These underlying causes alone are the proper target of policy. All policy that seeks to limit migration per se seeks to limit choice—by definition, as migration is a choice—and constitutes coercion that does not sit well within any mainstream, thoughtful vision of development. Reduction of skilled workers’ movement by itself might be justified if it had large and unambiguous benefits for others. There are nevertheless numerous theoretical and empirical reasons to doubt such benefits, and ethical problems in achieving them by limiting migration choices. This suggests that advocates of limiting and regulating skilled-worker movement subscribe to some other, usually unspecified, definition of development.

This paper summarizes recent research on the relationship between skill flow and development, with reference to an explicit definition of development. It also presents new evidence on the broad similarity of skilled workers’ patterns of domestic movement and international movement, and argues that limitations of skilled workers’ movement are useless or counterproductive at the international level for many of the same reasons they are rarely considered at the national level. It concludes by discussing several policy options for countries seeking establish a skill base for development that target underlying causes of movement rather than movement itself. A good first step in recognition of these complexities would be to forever drop the pejorative and inflammatory term “brain drain” in favor of a neutral, descriptive, and equally concise term such as “skill flow”.

I don't think changing the terminology will help. From a community perspective, brain drain is a problem. The issue is how we deal with it. A better approach would be to make increasing geographic mobility as a key part of any workforce development program. Retraining is only half of the labor mobility equation.

A good gateway initiative is to facilitate boomerang migration. This skill flow in and of itself won't repopulate the Rust Belt. But it can help fuel innovation and spur job creation. At a minimum, expatriates can help to arrest the parochial death spiral of shrinking cities. Drop the retention strategies and focus on how to lure diaspora talent back home.

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