Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Anatomy Of Irish Brain Drain

The narrative is all too familiar. Opportunities in the homeland dry up and young talent hits the road. That's not really what happens. We are trained to think that we are pushed out instead of being pulled in another direction. Most talent migration adheres to the rules of attraction. If you aren't aware of other choices, then you will stay.

Molly Muldoon tells the classic story of economic calamity in Ireland forcing recent graduates abroad. As she weaves her tale, she reveals some of the secrets of brain drain:

Growing up in Ireland amidst the success of the Celtic Tiger, the future seemed like a secure place filled with hope and opportunity. Business was thriving as our indigenous, highly educated workforce attracted large scale foreign investment.

Hotels, industrial estates, shopping centers, and housing estates sprung up in towns and villages overnight where supply far outreached demand. Immigration increased with an influx of our fellow Europeans eager to fill gaps in the labor market.

Ostentatious mansions adorned the country, and families were no longer limited to mere one or two holidays a year. Excessiveness exploded.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s educational institutions continued to churn out highly motivated and professional young people. My classmates and I were satisfied that our hard work would pay dividends. ...

... Mainly due to Ireland’s economic disarray, I have enough college friends around the globe to keep me couch surfing for a year. Eoin in Winnipeg; Sinead in Vancouver; Alan in Hong Kong; Victoria in Melbourne; Yvonne in South Korea; Sophia in Barcelona; Antoinette in Frankfurt; David in London. ...

... For many of us ex-pats the prospect of returning home to become another statistic in the dole queue is not very appealing.

Eimear graduated with a degree in journalism from Dublin City University and spent the last year living in New York City. She interned with a publishing house while in New York, and admits that the job market here in New York is also very competitive.

“There's fierce competition for internships in New York, but there's also so many opportunities that it's hard to get disheartened -- there's always something else to apply for,” she feels.

“And there's so much variety that you can really specialize and do what you love. The flipside to the thriving internship culture is that paid jobs are really hard to come by.”

The cycle starts with massive investment in local human capital. As educational attainment rises, so does geographic mobility. College students graduate with a global network, talent connected through social media technologies. This opens up nontraditional destinations such as Winnipeg, putting flyover cities on the mental maps of the Irish entering the workforce. This is a ticking brain drain time bomb set to go off during the next (inevitable) economic downturn.

Off Molly goes to New York City where she works as a waitress. Her friend Eimear would return to Ireland, likely discouraged by numerous attempts just to land an internship. Imagine if these expatriates worked as hard to make a go of it in their native country. It's a skill that the road teaches to you. You are better for the failure.

Most people never get that far. The talent pool becomes stagnant unless there is a fresh inflow of people from other places. The retention of graduates is a form of brain drain, stifling innovation.

Talent churn or circulation is an indicator of economic vitality. That so many Irish emigrate is a testament to successful investment in native human capital. Like most places, Ireland hasn't learned how to handle that flow. A suggestion from Canada:

We need to build a human bridge to and from Asia. Brain gain is better than brain drain, but policy must adjust to the fact of a life-long brain chain. We recommend measures to make Vancouver the Asian business capital of North America.

Ireland should build a human bridge to its Diaspora. My recommendation to Pittsburgh and other Rust Belt cities is to do the same. A Great Recession is a terrible thing to waste.

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