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Friday, August 6, 2010

Philippines suffers brain drain as best workers go abroad

THE PHILIPPINES is suffering a crippling brain drain with many of its most talented and qualified workers heading overseas for higher-paid jobs and better lifestyles, employers say.

The shock resignations last week of 25 Philippine Airlines pilots, who left for bigger salaries abroad, highlighted a trend that is changing the stereotype of overseas Filipinos being maids, sailors and laborers.

Scientists, engineers, doctors, IT specialists, accountants and even teachers are among the English-speaking talent heading to foreign lands, leaving the government and private companies scrambling to find replacements.

"There is a skills hemorrhage. We are losing workers in the highly professional and skilled categories," Vicente Leogardo, director-general of the Employers’ Confederation of the Philippines, told AFP.

The pilots who quit for jobs in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia would have in some cases nearly tripled their salaries, Airline Pilots Association of the Philippines president Elmer Pena told AFP.

"The salary here is a lot smaller than in other countries. You can’t really compare it," he said.

Civil engineer Paris Chuchana joined the exodus two years ago when he moved his family to Singapore so he could take a job earning about US$1,600 a month, five times more than the maximum salary he could expect at home.

Like many expatriates, Mr. Chuchana enjoys the lifestyle outside his homeland, which suffers from pervasive corruption, poor infrastructure and frequent natural disasters.

"I was just on vacation, visiting my aunt here, but I found I liked it, so I resigned from my job in the Philippines and came over," he told AFP by telephone from Singapore, adding he had no intention of returning home soon.

"My first kid is entering high school so I am already preparing for college."

The nine million Filipinos who work overseas -- about one tenth of the nation’s population -- in both high and low-skilled sectors undoubtedly play a crucial role in propping up the nation’s spluttering economy.

Last year they sent home US$17.3 billion to relatives or for investment, making up more than 10% of the nation’s gross domestic product, according to government data.

But Philippine Airlines’ recent woes have highlighted the costs. The carrier said its hopes for turning a profit this financial year had sky-dived because the pilot walk-out had forced some flights to be cancelled.

Other organizations recently reported similar brain-drain pain.

The government weather station was heavily criticized last month after it failed to predict the full force of Typhoon Conson that killed dozens of people.

In its appeal for understanding, it said it did not have enough qualified meteorologists because 24 staff had gone abroad for better-paying jobs in recent years.

And just this week, the Environment department announced it had lost 83 geologists to overseas work over the past three years, hampering government programs for mapping earthquake threats and mineral resources.

A Labor department study in 2008 found that despite a huge domestic work force, many positions for skilled workers were going unfilled because there were not enough qualified applicants.

Amid this shortfall, 22% of the roughly 330,000 Filipinos who went abroad to work last year were technical, managerial or clerical workers, according to official data.

The government has been seeking ways to upgrade salaries and benefits, according to Myrna Asuncion, assistant director of the government’s Economic Planning department.

"But local salaries can only go up by so much before they start hurting the competitiveness of local industries," Ms. Asuncion told AFP.

"We want to provide employment opportunities in the Philippines but there are some sectors that say salaries are already too high," she said.

With no solution in sight, business groups hold little hope of keeping the nation’s top talent at home.

"You cannot stop these people from seeking greener pastures," said Jesus Varela, a committee chairman with the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Midwife Chae Reviso returned to the Philippines after eight years working tax and rent-free in Saudi Arabia because she wanted to live again with her husband. But barely a year later, the 39-year-old is preparing to leave again because her homeland offered her too few opportunities.

"I felt I owed my husband some time but I cannot afford to build a house on my salary in the Philippines," she said.

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