Ireland’s brain drain


We do know how many have emigrated from Ireland since 2008 – over 200,000 have left the country since the onset of recession. But we know much less about why they left. Whether of necessity, or by choice .The raw data that the Central Statistics Office collects cannot supply that information. Now a comprehensive study of Irish emigration, conducted by a research team at University College Cork, under Piaras MacÉinrí as project leader, attempts to do so. The survey supplies many answers, and helps to build a profile of the contemporary Irish emigrant. The research team used the 2011 census data, conducted surveys of 2,500 households in Ireland, and collected online data from 1,500 Irish abroad. The survey provides a range of new insights into the emigrant experience. It has, rightly, been described as one of the most representative studies ever of Irish emigration.

In particular, two of the survey results are both surprising, and of some national concern. First, a high proportion – almost two out of three – of young emigrants aged between 25 and 34 had a third-level qualification, compared with 47 per cent of Irish people overall in the same age group. And, even more surprising, half of those emigrating left as a matter of choice. They quit fulltime employment at home to seek a job outside Ireland. This country’s loss of some of its best and brightest raises many concerns: whether the national loss of what can be seen as valuable human capital, is temporary or permanent.

Ireland has always projected itself to the world as a country with high educational standards, and a well-educated workforce. The Industrial Development Authority, in the early 1980s, ran a very successful marketing campaign, The Young Europeans. This featured a photograph of new university graduates dressed in their gowns, with the injunction: “Hire them, before they hire you”. Ireland, then as now, was gripped by recession and by rising net emigration. Subsequently it was discovered that many in the group photo had later emigrated.

Whether those in this latest wave of emigration will return, and how quickly, cannot yet be determined. As Mr MacÉinrí has pointed out, some 50 per cent of the half a million Irish who left in the 1980s did return during the boom years of the Celtic Tiger decade, from 1997. But, given the prospect of low growth in the years ahead, that high rate of emigrant return is unlikely to be matched in future. The brain drain, which has resulted in a huge transfer of labour, skills and experience from Ireland to other countries, may not be easily reversed. That depressing reality now calls for a considered policy response from Government. And it also deserves priority for discussion at the Global Irish Economic Forum when it meets at Dublin Castle next week.