Educated Irish leaving for new life abroad

UCC survey shows 62 per cent of emigrants aged 25 to 34 have a third-level qualification

Ireland is experiencing a “brain drain”, as the people currently leaving Ireland for a new life abroad are much more likely to have a higher level of education than the general population, a major survey on emigration has found.

The research, which will be published today at an international conference on "austerity emigration" in University College Cork, reveals that 62 per cent of emigrants aged 25 to 34 have a third-level qualification, compared to 47 per cent of Irish people in that age group overall.

Using data from the 2011 Census, researchers from the UCC Émigré project carried out door to door surveys of 2,500 households, while data was collected online from 1,500 Irish abroad and 500 intending emigrants attending jobs fairs. More than 60 emigrants were interviewed in-depth over Skype.

The final report claims to be “one of the most representative studies ever” of Irish emigration, providing a detailed profile of the age, gender, education, occupation and origin of Irish emigrants for the first time, as well as their experiences once they leave and intentions for the future.


Some 32 per cent of adults who responded to the household survey have had an immediate family member emigrate since 2006, while 44 per cent have had an extended family member leave. Almost 17 per cent of households have seen at least one member emigrate in the period.

Sparsely populated rural areas have been disproportionately affected, with 25 per cent of households losing a member to emigration. In commuter belt areas, where residents would be more likely have negative equity mortgages and young children, less than 11 per cent of households had experienced emigration.

Rural areas are also most likely to feel that emigration has impacted negatively on their community, with householders describing a loss of “vibrancy” associated with younger residents, lack of support for older community members, decimation of local sports teams and clubs, and reduced spending in the local economy.

Six in ten people have had a member of their circle of friends emigrate since 2006, rising to nine in ten among those aged 25 to 29.

Almost half of all emigrants left full-time jobs to emigrate, while one in eight worked part-time. Students, many of whom had just graduated, made up 15 per cent, while 23 per cent were unemployed.

Over 17 per cent of all emigrants had a background in construction, while 7 per cent were previously employed in manufacturing and engineering and 5 per cent in wholesale and retail. Teachers made up 5.4 per cent, while 9.5 per cent had a background in health or social work.

Of those employed full-time before departure, four in ten said they left because they wanted to travel and experience another culture, indicating that there is still a sizeable proportion of emigrants who are leaving by choice. They are likely to be professionals with qualifications in demand in other countries, especially in the areas of IT or health.

Professional insecurity and a lack of job satisfaction played a significant role in their decision to go, with the temporary nature of contracts, lack of opportunities for career advancement and low salaries commonly cited as reasons for leaving full-time employment.

Others cited a desire to find work or gain professional experience not available to them in Ireland, especially those previously working in an area unrelated to their qualifications or experience.

Students who emigrated after graduation said they had struggled to break into the labour market, where they faced unfair competition for fewer positions from more senior, experienced candidates who had lost jobs.

Three per cent of emigrants surveyed had children living in a different country, suggesting a considerable number of parents are taking up overseas positions to support a family still living in Ireland.

Although almost 40 per cent of recent emigrants would like to return to Ireland to live in the next three years, just 22 per cent see it as likely, though 82 per cent said improvements in the Irish economy would improve their likelihood of returning.

Find full results of the survey and a live stream of today's conference on

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny, founding editor of Irish Times Abroad, a section for Irish-connected people around the world, is Editor of the Irish Times Magazine