We are overplaying the “Brain Drain”

A recent survey by the Belfast Telegraph indicated that most young people living here see their future elsewhere. It was automatically assumed this was a problem. It may not be.

There are three assumptions here which are all flawed – first, that we are losing people without gaining any;  second, that once they have gone they are useless to us; and third, that the scale of the problem is unprecedented and irreversible.

First, to be clear, Northern Ireland is a small place. It is home to significant skills areas – in biotechnology, in the screen industries, in food processing, in aspects of astrophysics and so on. No doubt we wish to gain more, and we will do (the screen industries have developed here only in the last decade). However, it will never be home to every conceivable skills base – other countries and regions will always be ahead of us in some sectors (probably including finance, small vehicle manufacturing; certainly including wine growing, sun tourism and so on). It would be an awfully skewed education system which covered only the former and not the latter, therefore it is inevitable that we will lose some people to industries we do not have here – just as it is inevitable that we will gain people in the industries in which we excel.

(This applies, by the way, even in areas of public administration – we are experts in micro-surgery and even in doctor training here, but if you want a bone marrow transplant you go to Bristol and if you want a specialised children’s hospital you go to London.)

Second, “losing” people is not something you want to do unnecessarily, but it is not necessarily a bad thing either. A diaspora is not a bad thing at all. The aforementioned development of the screen industries in Belfast relied to some degree on people from Northern Ireland resident in London and even Los Angeles. It is in fact quite a useful thing to have people from Northern Ireland in major economic cities. They do tend to act as advocates of Northern Ireland, and often then to re-invest here. For example, Nicky Kinnaird opened Space:NK in London (having studied in southern England) but chose her native Belfast as her next location – creating employment which probably would not have been created here had she never moved to southern England in the first place.

Third, the scale of the problem is absolutely not unprecedented. As I noted last week, in 1972 63 more people left Northern Ireland than arrived here every day; that figure is now 2. Furthermore, I will predict that this trend will soon become negative (i.e. more people will come to Northern Ireland than leave) because property prices are being squeezed so ludicrously in southern England that many people (not least in the aforementioned diaspora) will see that their quality of life would be greatly enhanced by moving (and investing) here.

For young people, as for any people, it is quite normal for the grass to look greener outside. Good. Young people should travel and broaden the mind. If they find employment elsewhere, all well and good. But sometimes once you broaden the mind you realise Northern Ireland ain’t so bad – nowhere are people less cynical about their politicians, nowhere is the Health Service better managed overall, nowhere is quality education cheaper. Many places are great to visit, but once you’ve a four-hour round-trip commute just to earn enough money to pay double the mortgage, suddenly this place doesn’t look quite so bad…

PS: I myself was in London yesterday and on one day last week on business. It’s only an hour’s flight…


3 thoughts on “We are overplaying the “Brain Drain”

  1. Andrew says:

    An interesting post, but I am surprised about your maybe off-the-cuff remark about astrophysics. I am a physicist though not an astrophysicist and I do have to say that Astrophysics at Queen’s is extremely strong.

    • Now *there* is a point I like! Amended accordingly!

      Anything is possible of course – look at how the screen industries have grown; the automotive industry nearly made it here too.

      But of course the broad point is we won’t be good at everything.

  2. There are three assumptions here which are all flawed – first, that we are losing people without gaining any; second, that once they have gone they are useless to us; and third, that the scale of the problem is unprecedented and irreversible.

    I agree we are taking in good migrant skills base, however that still doesn’t explain the tendency of the private sector to re-advertise the same jobs with migration and a buyer’s market for graduates, private sector layoffs etc. working in their favour. Migration very rarely spurs indigenous export growth from the top, most migrants here either work to create businesses for the domestic market or join the skills base of academic and industrial levels. You would need a five year networking capacity to develop a credible indigenous business and you cannot do that simply upon arriving at the shore.

    I’m not saying that migrants don’t play a role in enterprise, they may well do, but often enterprise skills need to be developed on a home grown basis as their application cannot be imported, long term domiciled people including long term migrants have a role here.

    Secondly, there are truths to this statement too, many who leave are indeed unless to Northern Ireland and want to see the back of it. You mention going to London as “migration” but while Northern Ireland is part of the UK, that would never be recorded as such. This means there are no statistics for “migration” to and from Britain, never mind the quality offered. Resettling in another country (or indeed Britain), often with a new family, and a new company does push the homeland down the list of priorities for any diaspora. Of course those who would seek to destroy the EU, won’t reduce emigration but will see the benefits of any emigration reduce significantly.

    Thirdly, no one believes any precedent has been created on the brain drain here, rather Northern Ireland and indeed Ulster in pre-partition times all the way back to The Flight of the Earls so to speak, maybe even the monastic age with missionaries on the continent. The question you ask is if there is cause for a reverse and to be honest I don’t know, but I don’t think so. If you were to ask most diaspora why they would reinvest here it’s not to develop the biotechnology or food processing markets with new skills, but rather out of charity and handouts.

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