Brain Drain: Good for You. Bad for Your Country
“Believe it or not you can find doubles in Houston.” That’s what my newfound friend, the waitress at Pappas Burgers, told me on the last night of my business trip. I was halfway through my first bite of their famous Peppercorn Ranch Burger, when I heard, “Hey are you from Trinidaaaad?”
Not only was I shocked because this 19-year-old Houstonian said that she can pick a Trini accent out of the crowd, but moreso because I wasn’t prepared for her incessant ranting about doubles for my entire meal. This wasn’t normal.
On the flight back, I was amused at this silly thought in my head that doubles had to be the top cultural export from Trinidad and Tobago, second only to steupsing. You can find doubles up the Caribbean, in London, Scotland, Miami, New York, Toronto, and, as I had just found out, in Houston. Of course, it is well documented that steupsing has more global reach.
My amusement soon gave way to a more sobering reflection into the real reason for doubles being accessible to Trinis like me in these far away lands. I realised that the availability of doubles in these far-flung places was because of the ready market for homesick Trinis who, seeking a taste of home, have given other migrants, who can stand the heat while making barra and channa, under winter conditions, the opportunity to sell doubles in a foreign currency.
I quickly began to wonder just how many Trinidad and Tobago nationals have left our shores, for whatever reason, and who now call another land home. Certainly there needed to be a critical mass to justify frying barra in the quantities required to make a good business.
My mind jumped immediately to Arthur, a Trini in Houston and a good schoolmate of mine who I made sure to meet up with for some drinks in Houston who, apart from being the tallest human in the world, is among one of the brightest. We chatted at length about things we hadn’t realised we had in common – about his intention of coming home to start up his foundation, about our desire to see Trinidad and Tobago soar, about how we think we can best make meaningful contributions, and about why we think our generation has to be the one that cleans up the mess. Yuh know nah? Small talk.
“Like Arthur he wanted to come back home, but instead went one step further. He came back home.”
Arthur was the typical case and trust me, you know the type. A Trini writes SATs just after A-Levels, and leaves for a US university. While there, the Trini excels at any and everything and his academic excellence propels the Trini into a great graduate position at a Fortune 500 company. Eventually the Trini establishes roots and somehow ends up having a tonne of pictures on Facebook with them in uber-trendy, euro-design lounges, as they celebrate the victory of either their local baseball team or Obama’s election victory.
Arthur wasn’t without company. There were others like him who sat in the same class as me and who were now making a living outside of Trinidad after studying abroad. I thought of Sihle, Blain, Kali, Marlon, “Mitch”, Christopher, Kion, Brian, Kerry, Shane and so many others who would now be eating their doubles in the cold of winter.
Then I thought of Daryn who has this astounding intellect and a yearning to help Trinidad. Like Arthur he wanted to come back home, but instead went one step further. He came back home. His brilliance, however, could only land him a place in academia as a lecturer, which, to me, was incredulous. This brilliant mind couldn’t find a place in the private sector, and he couldn’t find a place to work that would leverage his field of study. Instead, he was frustrated into pursuing that ever so clichéd suggestion, “Why yuh doh go and teach?”
At the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT), he taught something that was neither challenging nor representative of his capacity and experience. It shouldn’t surprise you that he is back in the US now, and is working somewhere on Wall Street. Power to Daryn!
Arthur on the other hand says that we WILL be coming back home, regardless of what happens. Judging from Daryn’s experience though, and many others like him before, chances are he will face the same frustration that Daryn has and even if he doesn’t ‘re-repatriate’, because he knows his value in the US labour market, if his dreams don’t materialise in Trinidad, he may resent the decision to stay.
“We should look at what happened as a result of the fallout of the emigration of the professional class that took place in the late 80s.”
I often like to tell the story of how skimmed milk is created. You remove or ‘skim’ the cream from the top of the milk and what’s left you put in a red box and peddle as being the healthier choice. Well, the reality is we are witnessing the skimming of the cream off the top of our human resource in Trinidad and Tobago. These brilliant minds, the ones who should be competing to be our future leaders, CEOs, doctors, scholars and thinkers are being frustrated into looking elsewhere so that they can fulfil their personal and professional ambitions, and even though some seek an escape, others wish they didn’t have to choose, since their heart is in Trinidad and Tobago.
Of course, the conventional term for this plague is brain drain. The implications are far reaching in the long-term for Trinidad and Tobago, and while we can argue that it’s a globalised world, and people should be able to work where their talents and skills allow, we should look at what happened as a result of the fallout of the emigration of the professional class that took place in the late 80s.
We were stuck with second-grade leaders like Panday and Manning for two decades because the high-quality leaders who should have been here to compete with them for leadership roles were actually eating doubles out in the cold somewhere in the US or Europe.
I would hate for history to repeat itself. I would hate to be stuck with bad leadership because the leader that should have been is instead working somewhere on Wall Street because lecturing is the best job his brilliance could muster. One thing is for sure, doubles sales abroad will continue to soar with each passing year. And while that’s a good thing for Chief Brand Products’ export sales, and their Sales Manager, as he buys his brand new, black BMW, it is sadly a bad outcome for Trinidad and Tobago. I’ll stay for as long as I can, and I hope you do too.