Promote youth empowerment to reduce brain drain
I am a proud graduate of St. Augustine’s College, class of 2002. After high school, I obtained a bachelor’s degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs at Princeton University. I then worked in New York for a few years before returning to school to get my law degree from Northwestern University in Chicago. In January, I will move to New York to work at a large corporate law firm practicing in the areas of mergers and acquisitions, capital markets and financing. I am a young Bahamian living aboard, full of energy and optimism for our country, and I would like to believe that I can return home in a few years to a bright future, professionally, socially and personally. However, in conversing with young Bahamian professionals, at home and abroad, many of them have a feeling of disconnection and frustration with our economic system as it relates to career development and advancement.
Young Bahamians are frustrated because of: The failure of successive governments to diversify our economy from tourism and off-shore banking; the inability to adequately promote Bahamian ownership and expertise in our economy; the failure to sufficiently imbue our young people with the belief that they can achieve their full potential in The Bahamas; and a paucity of established mentorship programs designed to guide young Bahamians in their career advancement. This article will examine the aforementioned factors that contribute to the brain drain in our country and offer some solutions to reduce the number of Bahamians that leave or fail to return to The Bahamas due to frustration, disappointment and hopelessness.
Graduates who obtained degrees in traditional and well-defined fields have all too often been faced with the reality that the number of suitable positions available, if any, are greatly outnumbered by the number of persons seeking a job in areas such as law, finance, business, accounting and the civil service. Furthermore, young people with expertise in disciplines with little presence in The Bahamas are often left jobless and hopeless. While a smaller economy such as ours may not have as diverse a complement of career paths as exists in larger economies, our governmental and private sector actors must seize the opportunity to look at feasible opportunities for us to diversify our economy using and harnessing the special talents of our nation’s most valuable resource – its people.
One possible way to employ the diverse skills of young Bahamians would be to finance and encourage alternative energy programs and sustainable development related projects. Also, established industries such as farming, fisheries and offshore financing must be bolstered. All interested stakeholders must take a step back and develop innovative ideas to improve the international competitiveness of these industries while also increasing Bahamian ownership in these areas, especially with respect to the offshore finance industry. Increasing the number and visibility of Bahamian owners in hotels, banks and similar businesses provides hope and inspiration for young Bahamians to believe that they too can become owners in our largest industries if they work hard and make smart business decisions.
To facilitate and develop sustained youth empowerment in this country, the government must take seriously the business of Bahamians acquiring a more significant ownership interest in the economy. Young people have to feel that there is a realistic possibility of prosperity in The Bahamas beyond simply securing a job, especially for high-achieving young Bahamians who have access to opportunities around the world. It is interesting that although the incumbent government in Singapore won the recent general election, it lost a number of parliamentary seats and the former foreign minister, who was highly regarded internationally, lost his seat. One of the main grievances young Singaporeans articulated during the electoral season was the belief that expats are receiving many of the high paying jobs. In other words, many Singaporean youths are disheartened, like many young Bahamians, because they do not believe they have a realistic chance to truly flourish in their domestic economic market.
It is not sustainable for a nation’s economic development and advancement to have such a high level of disaffected youth, particularly highly educated youth, as this exacerbates the brain drain The Bahamas is currently experiencing. Creating awareness programs designed to inform Bahamians living abroad about lucrative and challenging opportunities at home can also reduce our brain drain challenges. There are already a number of Bahamians who previously lived abroad and have returned home to rewarding careers. To the extent that these success stories can be promoted and disseminated locally and internationally through the Bahamian diaspora, it can go a long way in giving young Bahamians hope that they can achieve professional success beyond their wildest dreams in The Bahamas. At the same time, public-private partnerships designed to broaden our economic expertise, facilitate entrepreneurship and attract global companies to set up shop in The Bahamas will go a long way to lure highly educated Bahamians back home.
The government along with the private sector, churches and other relevant stakeholders must address the lingering nihilism and hopelessness that afflicts many of our young people. In my short time at home, in conversations on social media platforms and elsewhere, many young Bahamians, regardless of political affiliation, have said to me that they feel advancement in this country is gained primarily based on familial pedigree rather than competency. Furthermore, many Bahamians feel that successive governments are selling our “birthright” to foreigners and that foreigners seem to be the only ones really reaping the financial rewards here in The Bahamas. Whether or not these claims are well substantiated, it is clear that leaders in the public and private sectors must do a better job of inspiring young people and informing them that there is still opportunity in The Bahamas regardless of parentage. They must convince young people that if they work hard and are fair in their dealings with co-workers and community members, they will one day enjoy the benefits of their dedication and delayed gratification. This effort to address this pernicious and persistent nihilism among your young people must start with strong public policy geared towards facilitating strong Bahamian entrepreneurial and corporate success.
Developing a culture of mentorship will also promote youth empowerment over the long-term in The Bahamas. Connecting young Bahamians with established business people, scholars and other accomplished individuals can help young people navigate their way up the corporate ladder in an environment that is perceived to be plagued with cronyism, nepotism, despotism and even political victimization. All interested persons must accept that a vibrant, effective mentor relationship cannot be forced or bureaucratized. It must be organic and genuine. Having said that, prominent business, political and civic leaders publicly coming forward and stating their willingness to mentor young Bahamians can go a long way in helping young people feel accepted and a part of our political, social and economic landscape. Also, young people must understand the importance of excellence and hard work. Successful individuals often have very tight schedules. Any time they make available for mentorship must be treasured and effectively used. We must be respectful of their time and also offer to assist them as well because young people often have valuable insights into trends and ideas popular among their contemporaries that older Bahamians could find useful.
The “Occupy Protests” that have rocked cities from New York to Rome underscore the pain and suffering young people feel the world over. Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, countless nations around the world have failed to provide their young people with affordable, practical educations and jobs that allow young people to live in a dignified manner. Going forward, governments will have to prioritize empowering young people if they wish to maintain any semblance of peace, prosperity and normalcy in their countries. Our Bahamian government and private sector leaders must act quickly, decisively and creatively to encourage and promote youth empowerment in our country or else we could see our own “Occupy Rawson Square” movements in the not too distant future.
A few weekends ago, I went to Arawak Cay to catch up with some old friends and to enjoy succulent Bahamians delicacies such as conch salad and guava duff. It truly feels good to be home and I love my country, but unless our government and other social organizations take significant steps to making our country more attractive to talented, ambitious young Bahamians, I do not believe that I and other young Bahamians will be returning home to this country that I love.
– Rishard P. O. Cooper