Brain drain There’s no shortage of highly-skilled Brits, says Fraser Nelson. The problem is that so many of them live abroad o listen to the debate about Britain’s skills shortage, one might imagine that we live in an island of idle dunces. How did we ever manage to build an empire, win two world wars, produce most of the world’s decent literature and — even today — be the eighth richest country on the planet? But the figures are undeniably grim: an audit of the British population shows our skills profile to be woefully inferior to that of comparable countries. It is baffling, until one considers the great unmentionable: emigration.
The last few years have seen the greatest exodus from these islands since the Irish potato famines. It has gone almost entirely unremarked upon due to the fixation with immigration. Yes, each day 1,500 people arrive on our shores. But what no one seems to mention is that 1,000 tend to leave.Worryingly little is known about them. Emigrants tend to dodge the man with the clipboard at the airport. But if the last decade is anything to go by, the pattern is clear: skills are, for hundreds of thousands, a passport out of this country.
Recently the OECD published an inventory of the world’s exiles. The first group you could probably have anticipated: Mexican emigrants, who now total 9.4 million. But the second-largest group of exiles, at 3.4 million, are the British. And a disarming proportion of them are young, well-educated wealth creators who feel — like the Mexicans — that it is time to leave for better opportunities. This silent exodus is laden with economic implications.
If the émigrés were to float away in one lump every Christmas, it would be the equivalent of Leicester or Coventry — 380,000 people. Some, it is true, are pensioners. More UK pension cheques are posted abroad than posted to Wales and Scotland put together. The people whose taxes built the British welfare state seem understandably unwilling to test the latter part of its cradle-to-grave proposition. But they count for less than a tenth of the émigrés.
The current skills exodus is more of a 1970s-style brain drain than a 1980s-style Auf Wiedersehen, Pet bricklayer exodus. The OECD showed this for the first time, using the spate of censuses conducted around the world at the turn of the century (2001 for Britain). It found 1.26 million British graduates abroad — a higher figure than any other country. It counted only 865,000 German expat graduates, 348,000 French and just 390,000 American.
Expand the definition to ‘high skilled’ and Britain’s skills crisis becomes even easier to understand. There are plenty of high-skilled Brits — it’s just that 15 per cent of them have scarpered, and are deploying their high skills in other countries. This is a rate of skills haemorrhage exceeded only by the famously itinerant Irish and New Zealanders. America’s retention rate was extraordinary: just 1 per cent of its best workers are abroad.
The most effective British policy for replacing these lost skills can be summed up in one word: immigration. For every 100 highly skilled people who have left these shores, 105 have come to settle — so the stock of skilled workers gently rose, and speaks with a slight foreign twang. But it is a mistake to see this as symbiotic, to believe that a law of labour replacement sucks in the people who leave. In America, for every 100 high skilled workers out of the country, 1,600 foreign high-skilled workers have settled. A quarter of all PhDs in the country are held by foreigners. Such figures do not, alas, exist for Britain. We only have census data showing that a third of immigrants have degrees, against a fifth of the population.
Immigration soared during the last decade. Five-andhalf million people entered the country looking for jobs and homes. Over the same period, millions of British workers went to find foreign jobs. And safer streets, better schools, more affordable property and everything else desired by those who attended the various emigration fairs across the country.
The British rich tend to stay put. With enough money, life is good here: one can afford a house in a good catchment area and find a good state school and safe
Britain’s Skills Crisis | 5 February 2011 | in association with BAE systems