North Africa hit by brain drain of ICT graduates

Talent migration of highly skilled information and communication technology (ICT) professionals from North African countries to the high-income European Union member states is contributing to a brain drain in the region.

According to a the World Bank’s World Development Report 2021: Data for better lives, the main cause of migration of ICT professionals from North African countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, is economic, since the loss of talent is being linked to the huge wage gaps that exist between high- and low-income countries.

“Given salary differentials of five to 10 times between data scientists in low- and high-income countries, it is estimated that workers with these skills in low-income countries are 33% more likely to migrate than workers from high-income countries,” stated the report.

The earnings of ICT employees differ widely globally, according to the report, which shows that, whereas high-income and upper middle-income countries pay these workers US$3,500 and US$900 per month respectively, lower middle-income and low-income countries usually pay about US$300.

Net outflow of 70,000 workers

Using data generated by a World Bank Group-LinkedIn partnership led by Tingting Juni Zhu, a private-sector specialist at the World Bank, and Alan Fritzler, a senior data scientist at the LinkedIn Corporation, the World Development Report 2021 noted there was a net outflow of at least 70,000 ICT workers from low- and middle-income countries to high-income countries from 2015 to 2019.

In their earlier 2018 report, Data Insights: Jobs, skills and migration trends methodology and validation results, Juni Zhu, Fritzler and their co-author, Jan Orlowski, an economist at the World Bank’s Finance, Competitiveness and Innovation Global Practice, highlighted how the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region was losing about 10,000 skilled ICT professionals each year.

The MENA region, according to the World Bank’s classification, includes 18 countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen, that are located in the Middle East and North Africa.

But, whereas some countries in the Middle East regain some of their losses by recruiting cheaper ICT talent from India, Pakistan and the Philippines, North African countries continue losing to the EU and other member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Skilled data scientists

According to Juni Zhu and her associates, all North African countries are experiencing high deficits of ICT professionals that are highly skilled in data science.

The World Bank identified knowledge and skills in materials science, aerospace engineering, development tools, data science, robotics, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, human computer interaction and fintech, as some of the key skill-sets that those countries had been losing.

Looking at LinkedIn’s skills country-occupation data, World Bank researchers noted the penetration rate of data science skills that are relevant to artificial intelligence across comparable occupations is currently four times higher in high-income countries than in low-income countries.

In their quest to understand the underlying dynamics involved in talent migration from North Africa, World Bank researchers noted there was minimal divergence in the proportion of students graduating with ICT degrees in all country income groups.

But what differed greatly was the share of formal employment of the ICT graduates. Whereas in the high-income countries, in 2018, ICT professionals accounted for 2.1% of total employment, in low- income and middle low-income countries, employment of such skilled workers stood at 0.1%.

In this regard, there were indicators that, although the brain drain of ICT professionals was attributed basically to economic causes, the World Bank argues, the mismatch between supply and demand in low- and middle-income economies seemed to prompt outward migration toward better employment opportunities in countries where the digital sector is more developed.

Producing graduates for external markets

According to Juni Zhu and her associates, similar scenarios have been observed between MENA and the EU member states, such as France and Germany, which are major beneficiaries of talent migration, especially from Morocco, that has one of the highest ICT graduate flights in the region.

In effect, what is emerging is that North African universities, although not through design, had been primarily producing ICT and data science graduates for external markets.

The issue is that the lack of employment opportunities and other factors that check job creation for high-skilled workers in North African countries has resulted in migration of ICT workers.

According to the International Labour Organization’s report, Global Employment Trends for Youth 2020: Technology and the future of jobs, in Northern Africa, only 27% of young people participate in the labour force.

Unfortunately, in Northern Africa, the ILO study indicates unemployment rates rapidly increase with educational attainment, a factor that seems to suggest that it is young people with higher education levels who face significant problems in entering the regional labour market.

But the emerging talent loss of ICT and data science specialists through migration that extends beyond North Africa to other developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia is expected to create barriers that will prevent those countries from harnessing those skills.

“The brain drain in these fields will be exacerbated by the lack of opportunities arising from undeveloped local data infrastructure,” predicts the World Bank in its report.

Governments urged to take action

To avert the crisis, the World Bank is urging governments in North Africa and other developing countries to start stimulating their digital economies and encouraging investment, particularly private investment in fibre-optic cables and data centres that would generate employment.

The issue is that there is a need to realise that the potential for data infrastructure to contribute to economic development depends on adequate human resources, particularly in frontier areas such as data science and artificial intelligence, pointed out the World Bank.

In this regard, probably the most important aspect to take into account is that, while there is a global scarcity of those skills, available evidence suggests that universities and other tertiary institutions in developing countries have the capacity to produce some graduates in these fields.

But, as ILO has pointed out, North African and other developing countries are likely to continue losing their data scientists and other professionals as a result of the inability to create decent work opportunities that are often the main drivers of migration.

For such countries, migration of the tertiary educated population can ease local labour market pressures, but there is no doubt that this often comes at the cost of brain drain and talent loss.