I had an interesting discussion last Tuesday with a young PhD faculty from the UP Physics Department who is about to go to his postdoctoral studies abroad. He came from the Philippine Science High School program, took his undergraduate and graduate physics degrees from the UP and is one of the most promising young faculty in the department. We were discussing about the serious problem of the lack of science and engineering faculty and researchers in the country and how many of his high school batchmates find jobs either out of the country or in lines of industry outside of their expertise.
The exodus of our bright and brightest or their local underemployment is just the tip of our problems here in the country. A recent nationwide poll by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) resulted in a new record of a 34.4 percent of their respondents saying that they are unemployed. This is an equivalent 13.8 million out of work Filipinos. The think-tank IBON foundation has already called 2001-2010 as the worst decade of recorded unemployment in the country’s history. These reports have not yet factored in massive underemployment and low wages. IBON reports that wages that have been flat in real terms for a decade now and that around one-fourth of the country’s labor force has had to go abroad to find employment.
During my conversation with this young PhD, I pointed out that despite the scholarship programs for engaging students to go into science or engineering, we still lack a clear program on what to do with these experts after they graduate.
According to IBON, development policies in the country, including the Philippine Development Plan (2011-2016) continue to rely on foreign investment, exports, debt and the free market. These policies rarely, if ever, create conditions that will need experts to do research and development in the country as most goods that are sold to consumers are finished manufactured imports.
The same policies have favored extractive and export-oriented enterprises away from industrial development. These include those in mining and export-crop plantations, the assembly of electronic and electrical products, the semi-manufacturing of garments, shoes and other low-value added products for reexport. There is also activity in construction especially in commerical or office spaces and residential and condominum towers. Those who cannot find jobs in these areas go into the service sector which include those in hotels and restaurants, business call centers and back-office financial services.
These same policies have literally frozen the real wages of workers and instituted flexi-bilization or casualization in the country. Without any real opportunities for employment and growth, nearly ten (10) percent of the population is already abroad as overseas contract workers or as undocumented workers who are literally in a kapit-sa-patalim situation.
This situation is not a new phenomenon. My father was a long time overseas contract worker in Saudi as an architect from the mid-1980s until he retired. What is worse today is that those going away are receiving salaries that are not much higher than local rates. They endure years of separation from their families for nearly the same wages here in the country had those jobs existed here in the Philippines.
The lack of an industrial foundation of the country caused this lack of jobs. With raw materials for export, we obtain imported equipment and consumer goods. The chronic trade deficits are partly subsidized by the OFW remittances, foreign loans and foreign investments. This economic situation favors only a small segment of the population especially some of those in the export-import business and in the commercial and financial trading sectors. One only need to look at the list of billionaires and multi-millionaires in the country to see how financially “rewarding” this pre-industrial economy is for some groups.
Unless we resolve to build local industries, the problem of the lack of jobs (and the lost opportunities for scientists and engineers) will continue to persist. With the crisis in the US and Europe worsening, the prices of the raw materials and semi-manufactures for export by the country can fall. If the demand for OFWs lessen, remittances will decrease and we will fall into a deeper crisis than ever.
With domestic industries, we can add more value to raw mineral extracts and agricultural goods. There will be more jobs available and more machinery for agricultural modernization. Food production will increase and displaced farmers can go to the enlarged industrial sector. Science and technology will be in demand for all of these areas. Our young PhDs and engineers will have interesting problems to solve that will keep them busy in an industrialized future for the country.
At the end of our conversation, I told my colleague that I hoped that when he comes back from his post-doctoral studies, the situation would have changed so that he and his batchmates can return to a better situation. The talent lost to brain drain is a literal black-hole for the country unless we institute a domestic industrial policy to entice them back and make them stay here for national development.