The brain drain of skilled workers
and specialists to the U.S. has suddenly
become a major national challenge
By ANDREW PURVIS
TIME (Canadian Edition)
The good news is that Canada is producing globally competitive talent in highly important fields. The bad news is that these paragons are taking their talent elsewhere, and the U.S., in particular, is reaping the benefit. How big is the problem? There aren't many good answers to these questions, and that's one reason the problem is causing such unease in corporate boardrooms and governmental planning sessions. The other reason is that the country's long-term well-being may be at stake. "We are at a critical juncture for Canada," says Heather Monroe-Blum, vice president of research and international relations at the University of Toronto.|
Almost everything about the brain drain is controversial, except the fact that it's important. Almost no one disagrees that a growing number of the brightest and most experienced Canadian software engineers, analysts and managers are heading south in search of richer opportunities. A similar exodus appears to be under way in biomedicine, other branches of academia and even the legal profession. The issue is as much one of quality as quantity. Don DeVoretz, a Simon Fraser University economist who is preparing a report on the brain drain for the C.D. Howe Institute, a Toronto-based policy think tank, calls it "a long-term competitive disadvantage." He likens the situation to "having one major Canadian university in the business of exclusively training students for the U.S." Economist John Crispo of the University of Toronto calls the brain drain "a selective phenomenon" occurring only in certain "pockets." "But in those pockets," he says, "it's a terribly troubling thing."
O.K., but how bad is it really? The years-ago departures of James Gosling, inventor of the computer language Java, and of Nobel economics laureate Myron Scholes, now a venture capitalist and professor at Stanford University, are easy to document and deplore (though they might not have made the same contributions if they had stayed at home). (TIME, 11May98, p. 46)
U.S. immigration statistics show a jump in the number of skilled workers entering the country from Canada since the mid 1980s, especially those on temporary work visas. From 1985 to 1996, the latest year for which figures are available, the number of Canadians moving south on such visas more than doubled, and most of the increase took place after 1990. More than half of those who left were professionals with visas obtained under the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement. U.S. immigration officials note that as many as 60% of those on the visas get permanent working papers, or green cards, signifying permanent U.S. residency, within two years of arrival, meaning that the annual totals understate the cumulative effect. The total may grow even faster in years to come, as the U.S. Congress is debating a visa expansion that could add as many as 30,000 slots each year. Then there are the illegal immigrants to consider. John Thompson, head of Canadian studies at Duke University in North Carolina, estimates that a total of 100,000 Canadians move to the U.S. annually.|
The impact of the exodus is glaring at ground level. At McGill University's department of electrical engineering, 25% of faculty teaching positions will be vacant at the end of the current term. Reason: the Ph.D.s who held the jobs have moved on, usually to the U.S. "We're losing people faster than we can hire them," says chairman Nicholas Rumin. Ph.D. students are teaching some lab courses because there are not enough professors. The department's ranking — second in Canada and sixth on the continent, according to an independent study — is at risk. If the trend continues, says McGill's vice principal for research, Pierre Bélanger, the prospect for Canada's universities will be similar to that of have-not sports teams like the Montreal Expos: "We get some good players, we develop them, and then come these high-priced teams who snatch them away." Says Bob Woodham, head of computer science at the University of British Columbia: "Most, if not all, of our people could find jobs at double their current salary or more in the U.S."
Hospital doors are revolving too. From 1994 to 1996, 17,000 Canadian nurses moved to the U.S. Nearly 10,000 Canadian doctors are working south of the border, up 20% from 1985. One of the most prominent emigrants was Dr. Riccardo Superina, Canada's only pediatric liver-transplant specialist, who last year left Toronto's Sick Children's Hospital for Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital.
Among recent graduates in computer science, McGill's Rumin says, "it seems as if every second one is going south of the border to work." For advanced-degree holders, he says, "it's almost every single case." Many graduates take a job before they obtain their degree, then wing back on weekends to defend their thesis. Claude Demers, president of the Association of Industrial Research of Quebec, a high-tech industry group, estimates that 1 in 2 graduates in biotechnology or other highly specialized fields now goes elsewhere, mostly to the U.S., for the first job.
In Montreal, Peter Brojde, president and CEO of Eicon Technology Corp., which makes data-communications products for PCs and the Internet, says he lost 10 of his "best and brightest, most experienced" workers to the U.S. in 18 months. This led to delays of up to six months in the release of new products and the loss of millions in revenues, Brojde estimates. To keep its remaining staff, the company had to raise salaries as much as 20%.
At MacDonald Dettwiler, based in Vancouver, a global software and systems-engineering company with some 800 employees, recruitment manager Peggy Lucci says the company has been forced to ratchet up employee benefits to combat high U.S. salaries. At MCM Technology, a Fredericton software-engineering firm, founding partner Alistair MacDonald says his company could add 20 employees to its force of 80, but can't find them. "It means we're not able to step up to opportunities presented right now," he says.
Even law, traditionally a parochial field, has been affected. Over the past two years, major American (and British) firms have begun intensive recruiting at Canada's élite law schools, offering starting salaries as high as $100,000 a year in New York City, vs. $45,500 a year in Toronto. (TIME, 11May98, pp. 46-48)
|North American Free Trade Agreement rules ... make international movement easy. Ascend Communications, for example, a networking company based in Alameda, Calif., projects that it will hire upwards of 1,500 Canadians in 1998, well over 5% of its total new hires. "We're all competing for the same people," says Ascend's staffing manager George Surovik. "We need to go out and find new talent." And Canadian talent is easy to hire: work visas for the U.S. take only three to five days to process when the applicant is from Canada, compared with as much as eight weeks for job seekers from other countries. (Margaret Feldstein, Have We Got a Job for You!, TIME (Canadian edition), 11May98, p. 46)|
Canada signs an international agreement promoting its own brain drain. The US expedites the Canadian brain drain with administrative preferences for Canadians. It would appear that Canadian legislators are unaware of the economic damage that is being inflicted on their own country, and thus unaware of the need to induce Canadian brains to stay home.
|Figuring out the reasons behind the brain drain is easier than figuring out how big it actually is. The most important factor is the formidable growth of the world's largest economy, which has been adding an average of 1.5 million jobs annually for the past eight years. During the same period, Canada has been suffering through the worst bout of long-term high unemployment since the Great Depression. That rate is declining rapidly as the economy surges forward this year, but it is still well above U.S. levels. (TIME, 11May98, p. 48)|
Canada also drains brains, usually from poorer countries. Ivan Fellegi of Statistics Canada contends that qualified professionals from other parts of the world — India, Korea, China — may be compensating for the overall effects of the drain to the U.S. In 1996, Canada's immigrants included 18,000 people arriving under the category called "computer scientists, engineers, etc."|
The most troubling aspect of the drain, many experts agree, is that it may deprive the country of valuable innovations and comparative business and economic advantages. (TIME, 11May98, p. 50)
Andrew Purvis above recognizes the harm to Canada of having its brains stolen ("deprive the country" refers to Canada), but follows the tradition of paying no attention to the adverse effects of stealing brains from poorer countries on those poorer countries. Ignored too, therefore, is the possibility that entering the values of brains drained and gained into foreign-aid computations will often alter, and will sometimes reverse, the calculated net flow of wealth from one country to another. For example, a computation which took brain drain and gain into account might lead to the conclusion that poor countries like Ukraine are net transferers of wealth to rich countries like Israel, the US, or Canada.
Also left unexplored is the possibility that Canada suffers little because while being drained, it itself drains. Being drained and draining are unlikely to be exactly equal, so that some net upgrading or deterioration of brain power may take place over time. However, such may not be the case for the countries at the source of the brain supply, like Ukraine and Russia — these may be drained, but may themselves have no poorer source possessing quality brains which they in turn can drain. Thus, whereas Canada may suffer a gradual degradation of its economy over decades, Ukraine may have its economy destroyed beyond recovery in a matter of years.
A question that remains is why the US is unable to supply its own brains. The answer may be threefold: (1) Poor educational system — the US has one of the poorest educational systems of all developed countries, and compares unfavorably even to many underdeveloped countries. (2) The US is a corrupting society in which children are inculcated in passivity by watching an average of five hours of television a day, and in which adults are encouraged to squander their time in material acquisition and self-indulgence. (3) The dysgenic effect of professional families having few children, or more generally the negative correlation between education and number of offspring. Thus, one destructive consequence of attracting the finest brains to the US is that in the US they will tend to fail to replicate their numbers in the next generation. The United States steals brains, but then seems to work toward rendering them extinct, forcing itself to steal still more brains to make up for the deficit. In consequence, the world in general, and Ukraine in particular, is thrown into choas.