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Why Philippines Continue to Lose IT Talents to Singapore and Other Countries

Jennifer Portuguez-Alba (American Chamber Journal - September 2012 Issue) 18.10.2012

“Much better compensation package, of course!”  This is the standard reason given to me by the majority of IT professionals whom I have dealt with from the time I started working in the IT recruitment industry way back in 2005.  Years have passed and, invariably, I get the same kind of feedback. Well, it’s my role to still try very hard to negotiate with such IT talents and executives, and entice them to consider the Philippines-based opportunities I have for them.  I would cite such factors as the stability of my client company, the step-up role itself, the career growth, the company’s benefits for both employees and dependents, the working schedules, and lastly, the supposedly unbeatable advantage of being near their families. Sadly -- all these to no avail.  Yet, really, who could blame our highly skilled IT talents for their predispositions when they know that they would easily earn – by working abroad -- at least three times the base compensation level in the Philippine IT job market?


Then as if to make me feel a bit guilty as to why I would even try to persuade these talents from grabbing the opportunities abroad, they would seemingly appeal to my sense of reality with a parting statement like “I hope you understand that this is for the future of my family”.   Indeed, that’s what it’s all about -- which is the ability for our young highly skilled talents -- whether in IT or other fields -- to build some kind of an egg nest for the future – yes, even at the expense of being distanced from their families.


The money part is real, to be sure.  But, our Filipino talents are smart enough to also discern that beyond the compensation is the value of gaining more advanced technical skills while in such places as Singapore where they would be exposed to the latest software, huge projects, as well as the invaluable international exposure involving foreign travels and working in a multi-cultural environment.  All of which would only serve to make them be assured of better marketability and faster career growth in the near future.


Mr. Noel Caido, Account Solutions Manager for APAC Region at Hewlett Packard replied to this talent drain issue: “Apart from the pay and value for money, an international exposure is your leverage once you return to Manila. To be skilled in the Philippines is a costly endeavor if one is to aspire for a certification at your own expense, unless your employer provides for the training; hence, the handicap for most Filipino IT talents. It has always been perceived that talents from abroad are a giant steps ahead in terms of technology and experience and access to training and certifications are cheap, thus giving them the leverage to expect higher compensation should they eventually come back home”.


Another interesting comment I received from a Senior Java Developer from ASTICOM, Arman Apuntar, was along this line: “It’s because of taxation in our country; too much tax against a rising cost of living. What I mean is a decent cost of living is not proportionate to the salary of most of our IT professionals; that is why developers like me are always actively seeking for better opportunities outside the country.”

To add to the many reasons why our IT professionals have tended to favor working in Singapore, here is an interesting bit of twist coming from a colleague of mine from another recruitment firm who shared with me that two senior candidates she interviewed recently cited that their reasons for accepting an offer from Singapore are “because the country is less polluted and they are not affected by flood”.  The challenge, it seems, is – particularly in the IT workplace – that it is not “more fun” in the Philippines -- to borrow facetiously from our now flagrant tourism-inspired slogan.


Based on the recently released IT Industry Competitiveness Index, which measures the extent by which the countries are capable of supporting the IT-based production sector, the Philippines ranks 52nd out of 66 countries analyzed. To state a correlation regarding the result of this survey and the majority of IT talents I have interviewed throughout the seven years in my IT recruitment stint, most of the so-called hard-to-find resources have either worked in other countries or that they have been trained on the latest technologies outside the Philippines. Our IT talents are good per se, to be sure, but there is less opportunity in the Philippines to be able to enhance their skills and to obtain the certification that is recognized worldwide.


The Philippines, along with Bangladesh, also received a zero grade in terms of creating an environment for Research and Development in the IT industry. The United States, Finland and Singapore topped the R&D index. The IT Industry Competitiveness Index Survey was conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit of the Business Software Alliance. Economist Cid Terosa from the University of the Asia and the Pacific said:  It was“not surprising for the Philippines to have a low ranking in IT competitiveness. There are no highly-trained IT professionals here by global standards. We also have very low allocation for IT because it is not a top priority.” He added that the administration of President Benigno Aquino III have yet to tap the much ballyhooed public-private-partnership (PPA) to provide the impetus to improve the country’s IT infrastructure.


Even as we go back to the earlier years post-2000 (remember the Y2K phenomenon?), there was alrealy a surge in recruitment for IT professionals skilled in SAP, Developers on Java and .NET, as well as in Network and Systems Administration for Singapore, Malaysia, United States, and the Middle East. Although these countries have sustained economic downturns in 2008, the eagerness of IT Filipino talents to work at such places did not subside.  The Philippine Software Industry Association laments the unabated loss of Filipino computer programmers to aggressive foreign recruiters from the U.S. and  Singapore-based companies.  Not only are programmers lost to foreign-based companies but even key people like team leads and project managers already with several projects under their belt are similarly lured abroad.  To further compound the problem, we now hear increasingly of pre-approved employer petitions from the United States and Singapore for computer-based occupations which only exacerbate further this externally-inspired exodus of our IT professionals. The PSIA places the IT professional brain drain rate at about 30 to 50 percent.


It is not difficult to surmise why IT talents choose to leave. Different reasons and varying desires abound: the money, to put it crudely, is one; but then as we already mentioned above, there are the exposures to new technologies, broad-based experiences, training, certifications, and one may add, improved quality of life.  If you ask these fairly young people if they wouldn’t miss their own country.  Well, smiles and a mild shrug of the shoulder would be the answer.


A continuous drain of our IT talents does not augur well for developing our technology infrastructure and for supporting our economic and business expansion, among others.  There are many adverse trade-offs we would sustain from losing such valuable wealth of talents with no light we could see at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.  It’s a dilemma that has no easy, short-term solution, we agree.  Yet, if not addressed now by the powers-that-be, the prospect can be scary.


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