Reverse brain drain? Filipino execs return home amid crisis

Published by rudy Date posted on March 17, 2009

As job opportunities dry up in the US and the rest of the western world due to the brutal financial crisis, some Filipino executives, who left early on for greener pastures, are returning home in search of work.

The financial turmoil–that analysts and experts describe as the “worst” since the Great Depression of the 1930s and that which has forced the world economy to turn on its head–is all encompassing that even the highly skilled are affected, local executive search firms interviewed by observe.

From the financial services sector to automotive and semiconductor, companies have been closing shop, leaving thousands of executives and workers huddling in the tight job market.

And players in the executive search industry, who used to hunt top professionals for job placements, suddenly find these people swarming towards them, inquiring about employment opportunities in still expanding economies in Asia, including the Philippines.

Industry leader ZMG Signium Ward Howell, for instance, has received five times the normal inquiries in the last couple of months, according to its chief executive officer (CEO) Jesus Zulueta.

“We noticed a lot of people are more open to coming back to the Philippines,” he said.

Among them, he noted, were a Filipino senior investment banker from New York who was placed with a multinational bank here and another Filipino who came back from the US to work as CEO of a local insurance firm.

Upon return, they bring with them ideas, skills and expertise that have been lost to the Philippines since the early 1970s when Filipino top minds started to immigrate in waves to countries like the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

However, headhunters are still not warmed up to the idea of a possible reversal of the brain drain in the country.

Zulueta said that while some Filipino professionals are coming back home to snap up executive jobs here, many others are still leaving or willing to stay overseas and ride out the current downturn.

Why go

Indeed, there are a lot of reasons why Filipinos go abroad. Migration of Filipinos dates back many decades ago and history would attribute this to extreme poverty, unemployment and sometimes, dirty politics in the country.

Those who first come to mind are Filipino contract workers who fly overseas to work as nurses, nannies, construction workers and entertainers.

But even prior to the phenomenon of contractual workers, many Filipino business executives and professionals have been going to industrialized countries, not just to fill in skills gaps but to secure citizenship, bring their families and settle down.

Carmen “Babes” Guevara, managing director of HIRE Inc., told that this was especially evident in the last few years.

“The migration of well-placed executives has also increased significantly in the last three years or so. That’s what shocked me. These are the people who live in big homes, send their kids to private schools, have two to three cars and club memberships,” she said.

“Mostly, their reason for leaving is to secure the future of their children. Some of them feel it’s hopeless here,” she added.

Largely, the US has been a magnet for Filipino professionals seeking a “better life.” In fact, Filipinos compose the bulk of immigrants in the US. European countries and the Middle East also have their share of Filipino immigrants.

However, as recession engulfs most of the developed countries and layoffs and salary cuts dim job prospects, “Filipino executives are moving to Asia because the companies they’re working for are no longer as competitive or have closed down.”

Tough decision

Returning home is a tough decision though.

Zulueta said those who consider it do a lot of homework on how the Philippine market is doing in general and “gather as much information as they can from family and friends to see whether this is the place to be.”

And most senior executives will not accept the first local job that comes along. They will study it.

“These are very major moves they have to do. Moving from one country from another is probably the most stressful thing one could do,” Zulueta pointed out.

He said one of the biggest challenges for Filipino immigrants wanting to work back home is finding a job that would pay for their mortgage abroad.

“Most of them have accumulated debt and have mortgage to pay,” he noted.

On the other hand, Zulueta said Filipinos who have been directly hit by the crisis, maintained strong familial ties in their homeland, and who are thinking of retiring, are most likely to take the risk of going back to the Philippines.

“It’s cheaper to stay here. They can stretch out their savings,” he said.

Local opportunities

For those who do come back, the nagging question then would be: are there job opportunities locally?

According to the headhunters, overseas Filipinos that have been displaced in the ongoing economic crisis find themselves “in the same boat” as the American, European or Asian expatriates who move to the Philippines and the rest of the region, looking for “better chances.”

“Of course, we expect a lot of positions in the developed countries and the region to go. A lot of expats who already lost their jobs are willing to continue staying in Asia. Some are moving from their regional offices to subsidiaries in the Philippines. When they transfer, aspiring local managers and executives could lose out,” Guevara explained.

With the pool of executives growing, so is competition because a lot of industries have been consolidating.

Vacancies in the export-oriented sector are fast disappearing while financial services companies have frozen hiring or right-sized.

“A lot of corporations are adopting a wait-and-see attitude. They are shelving plans to hire, saying they changed their mind or there has been a change in business plans because times are hard,” noted Guevara.

“If companies would be hiring, it’s no longer because of expansion, but more of replacement,” she added.

The only industries perhaps that continue to thrive amid the downturn are the pharmaceutical, retail and business process outsourcing (BPO).

Mario Biscocho, vice president and managing director of John Clements Consultants Inc., particularly put emphasis on the “huge potential” in BPO.

“Companies overseas continue to look at opportunities to cut costs. Moving their non-core operations to the Philippine is one of them,” he said.

“The BPO industry is targeting almost one million jobs up to 2010, a substantial share of that would be executive positions. That’s what the headhunting industry is targeting,” he added.

Flexibility, good performance

Despite the economic crisis, headhunters believe that “there are jobs for those who are qualified to do the jobs.”

Guevara noted that an employee’s best asset during crunch time is his performance. She also stressed the importance of flexibility.

“Companies want to keep their best workers,” said Guevara. “Now, we’re all in a survival mode. So one should be flexible and acquire new skills.”

Biscocho, for his part, said: “The key is retooling. You need to learn a thing or two, be flexible and be able to take on another type of work.”- JUDITH BALEA,

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