Research contradicts brain drain narrative of emigration

Latest ESRI research suggests recent pattern of emigration differs significantly from the 1980s

Prof John FitzGerald, ESRI research professor:  “What is more surprising is that the employment of those with third-level qualifications has risen continuously throughout the crisis.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Prof John FitzGerald, ESRI research professor: “What is more surprising is that the employment of those with third-level qualifications has risen continuously throughout the crisis.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Wed, Dec 18, 2013, 10:51


The number of college graduates employed in the economy has risen in each of the last six years despite the economic downturn. According to research from the Economic and Social Research Institute, there has also been a net inward migration of third-level graduates over the crisis period.

The findings run counter to the prevailing narrative that the recession had resulted in a massive brain drain of highly educated workers.

The research also suggests that the recent pattern of emigration differs significantly from that experienced in the 1980s, where it tended to be concentrated among those with the highest level of educational qualifications. Between the start of the recession in 2007 and its low point in mid-2012, total employment in the economy fell by about 16 per cent.

The ESRI’s research, contained in its latest quarterly economic commentary, suggests that the pattern of change in the labour market has been “very different” depending on the educational qualifications of the participants. In spite of the huge upheaval, employment of college graduates rose throughout the crisis period, growing by an average of 2.8 per cent a year.

The number of people employed in the economy with third-level qualifications is now 12 per cent higher than it was before the recession struck in 2007. The picture is, however, remarkably different for those without a Leaving Cert qualification. Employment among this category of worker, many of whom were employed in the construction sector, has fallen by 50 per cent since 2007.

Employment of those with a Leaving Cert but without a third-level qualification is also down substantially – by about 20 per cent. The pattern of change in this category is different from those without a Leaving Cert in that the most rapid fall occurred in 2009 and then stabilised, so that employment today is similar to what is was in 2010.

The research, which utilised figures in the Central Statistics Office’s most recent Quarterly National Household Survey, showed the population of people aged between 15-64 with less than a Leaving Certificate qualification fell by 17 per cent between 2007 and the third quarter of 2013.

However, with no net migration, the ESRI estimated the population of those with the least advanced education qualifications would have fallen by only 10 per cent, suggesting this cohort of workers had been adversely affected by the recession. By the same token, the population of people with third-level qualifications rose by 10 per cent over the same period, suggesting substantial net immigration of graduates has been ongoing during the recession.

“There may be graduates exiting this country but based on current figures, there are even more coming in,” the ESRI’s John FitzGerald said. “However, what is more surprising is that the employment of those with third-level qualifications has risen continuously throughout the crisis.”

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