Editorial | Where the grass is greener
The quandary of scores of young professionals in the health and education sectors leaving the country for better-paying jobs in foreign lands is a factor that will seriously affect the country's development agenda.
For decades, professionals have been taking up positions overseas, but from all reports, specialist nurses and teachers are currently being aggressively wooed by recruiters who offer them better salaries and opportunities to grow mainly in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.
The reality is that classrooms are being emptied, and as was reported earlier this week, some surgeries were cancelled at the country's premier teaching hospital, the University Hospital of the West Indies, due to lack of specialist nurses. More than 42 per cent of the professional workforce - many of them educated through subsidised tertiary programmes - are moving to countries where they are better paid, have the chance of becoming citizens, owning their homes and upgrading their education.
Something else to consider - IMF figures suggest that 85 per cent of tertiary graduates emigrate to First World countries. It means that these countries are also faced with shortages, but instead of training the labour market, they find it more convenient to recruit. Jamaica, with its limited resources, is no match for its mighty and rich North American neighbours and will no doubt lose in the battle for scarce skills.
Losing so much of our human capital does not bode well for the future of the country. Throughout history, crucial discoveries and innovation to improve the quality of life were made by young people whose agile minds propelled them to challenge old theories and expand boundaries. Now, more than ever, these skills are needed in developing countries like Jamaica.
So what is the upside of this migration of skills? There is remittance. As much as 18 per cent of Jamaica's GDP comes from inflows of hard currency, which boosts consumer spending and helps to alleviate poverty of relatives left behind. The broader question, however, is whether the inflows of foreign exchange outweigh the loss of human capital to the country.
It is impossible to prevent emigration. However, there is a strong argument to be made for policymakers to come up with new retention strategies or at least to create measures which may delay emigration. There is an even stronger argument that the Government ought to engage with the recruiting countries to see how they can help with training since they will ultimately be the beneficiaries of the specialist training given to nurses and teachers, in particular.
We suggest also a greater level of engagement with members of the diaspora who could be encouraged to return home and help in nation-building. The bottom line, though, is that good salaries and prospects for advancement and a peaceful environment remain determining factors. Immediate recruitment of nurses from Cuba, Africa and India is a mere bridging measure, and long-term solutions are needed.
Big plans have been announced to grab a share of the medical tourism market, which could earn Jamaica some US$600 million. Jamaica aims to attract about 100,000 medical tourists within the next 10 years. With the domestic side of health care reeling from a critical shortage of nurses, will medical tourism skim off the remaining skilled personnel and leave the public sector to crawl on its knees?
The continued exodus of specialist nurses which has been predicted will spell a real catastrophe for the Jamaican health-care system, where already the quality and quantity of service is viewed in a negative light.