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Brain Drain Hits Philippines


Airline pilots and mechanics, and electrical linesmen and engineers are among the skilled workers leaving the Philippines for higher paying jobs overseas in a brain drain that raises questions about the nation's future. While the estimated eight million Filipinos working abroad make a huge contribution to the economy from the money they send home, services in the Philippines are starting to suffer.

People who fly airplanes and those who maintain them are exiting the Philippines. The air industry estimates that since 2000 more than 120 pilots, out of 700 who are qualified to serve as captains, have left.

Philippine Airlines, the largest carrier in the country, has lost almost 20 percent of its pilots since 2003. It has 450 pilots - but at least 80 have left - many of whom had at least 10 years experience, making them difficult to replace. Captain Johnny Andrews, vice president for flight operations, says the company's expansion plans face cutbacks as a result.

"If this is not stopped our aviation industry will be in trouble," Andrews said. "If you base it on the demand … there is a chance that our aviation industry will collapse."

Captain Andrews says the bottom line is money. Foreign carriers offer pilots salaries of up to $10,000 a month. Senior pilots at Philippines Airlines receive about $4,000, although that can be boosted to $7,000 by benefits and productivity pay.

He says Philippine Airlines has increased benefits and pay and raised the retirement age for pilots. The government has imposed a six-month waiting period on senior pilots who plan to leave their jobs. But, Andrews says, the trend continues, and while training of new pilots has been increased, it cannot fill the gap at the top where the experienced ones are leaving.

Much of the new demand is from low-cost Asian carriers in nations including South Korea, Sri Lanka and Singapore. In addition, Captain Andrews says with the air industry expanding in China and India, the demand for pilots and mechanics will continue to grow in coming years.

There are problems on the ground, too. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration says almost 1,500 aircraft mechanics have left since 2000.

Currently about 1500 mechanics are working in the local industry. About 900 of those are senior, requiring five to six years to be trained. Metal fabricators who cut metal for aircraft bodies are also being poached by overseas companies.

Aviation is not the only industry suffering. The power sector is taking a hit. Meralco, the Manila electric power distributor, says it is losing linesmen who construct, operate, and maintain power lines. Ruben Sapitulla, head of the company's human resources, says experienced workers are hard to replace.

"If you are talking about a first class linesmen (it takes) about five or six years, or even more before they can be as skillful as these linemen who are leaving now," Sapitulla said. "It's really a problem for the company, because replacing these linemen is costly."

He says some foreign companies pay up to 30,000 pesos a week, or about $560, which is more than Meralco pays in a month.

Health care also is suffering. Experts estimate that more than 100,000 nurses have left the Philippines since 1994, and thousands of doctors have left over the past six years. Most of the doctors work as nurses overseas, because it is easier to get a license and they still make more money than at home.

The Philippines is one of Asia's poorest countries, but it has an educated population. Thirty years ago, Filipinos began leaving home to work overseas, taking jobs around the world.

Now, more than eight million Filipinos work overseas and they make up a big part of the economy, sending home nearly $11 billion last year. While the government encourages and supports the overseas workers for the money they bring in, the policy is starting to have painful costs.

Economics professor Ernesto Pernia, at the University of the Philippines, says it is a delicate balance.

"On the one hand, it's a relief from the high level of unemployment and the low incomes that they could get here given the weakness of the economy," Pernia said. "And on the other hand, there is a brain drain and a skills drain occurring from the Philippines. The counterpart to that is that these migrant workers remit substantial amounts to the economy representing close to 10 percent of G.D.P."

To fight the drain, the government has begun to declare certain workers, such as pilots and senior aircraft mechanics, as having "mission-critical skills." That means they must give six months notice before they can take a job overseas.

Danilo Cruz, Undersecretary of Labor, says more training also is needed to make up for the losses.

"Our workers have the right to gain full employment but if this will be detrimental to the national interest and the economy the government has the power to control the outflow of these skills overseas," Cruz said. "Aside from that, we should encourage the training of people on these critical skills."

But business and other analysts are skeptical. They say global economic growth will consume needed skills and the government of a developing nation like the Philippines is no match for the power of the international job market.