Latin America: How can we retain talent to promote development?

August 27, 2012


  • Retaining talented Latin Americans will be key to the region's development
  • Low salaries or little professional recognition meanthat Latin Americans are willing to move abroad
  • OCDE countries are the preferred destination for Latin American professionals

It’s after midnight in Buenos Aires. Flickering lights from television sets can be seen in homes near Chass Park. Down the street, in a mid-sized building, the light from a lamp burns, unwavering. Through the window, we can see a 33-year old computer programmer at his desk.

Andrés Quijano worked at that desk for a month to develop the app –Ecofacts—which earned him first place in the World Bank’s “Apps for Climate” competition. He beat competitors from across the world. “You can create a good app from anywhere in the world...although, obviously, it is much easier if you live in Silicon Valley,” he said when asked about the possibilities for developing his skills in Argentina.  

At the other end of Latin America, in sunny Cali, Colombia, engineer Ernesto Girón also developed an application that earned him a place among the competition’s 15 finalists. With his 15 years of computer programming experience, he designed WBPanorama, which amongst other functions predicts the air temperature over the next several years. Although his hometown beckons him, Ernesto admits that he is tempted to pack his bags and go to the United States, where salaries are higher and there are more opportunities for employment in the new technology sector. “Research in Latin America is limited and few companies offer work,” he says, discouraged.

Andrés and Ernesto are two outstanding examples of the growing number of highly-skilled professionals in the region, especially in the area of new technology. This sector has increasing relevance worldwide. Besides late nights, cups of coffee and computer code, the two men are joined in their desire to share their specialized knowledge with the general public.

Although our two protagonists live in their home countries, they are torn between leaving and staying when considering how best to develop professionally. Low salaries, limited professional recognition, possible unemployment and a lack of support for research make it difficult to stay.

Bolivian Álvaro Molina faces a similar situation. He, too, was a finalist in the “Apps for Climate” competition, thanks to his FuelECOnomics website, which compares pollution levels of 45,000 models of cars and calculates fuel costs and carbon footprints of different routes.

These three Latin Americans developed software applications that stood out among the entries in an international contest; nevertheless, their future employment situation is far from stable.

" Research in Latin America is limited and few companies offer work. "

Ernesto Girón

App developer

How can countries keep their best and brightest?

As World Bank's David McKenzie explains, brain drain is increasing globally. His report showsthat migrants increased from 14 million in 1960 to 60 million in 2000. At the same time, the percentage of migrants with tertiary education increased dramatically.

Salary scale, employer prestige and professional development opportunities are decisive factors when deciding whether to stay in their home countries or go abroad. Latin American professionals who go in search of better opportunities abroad generally opt for richer countries since these have the greatest capacity to attract highly-qualified candidates.

However, the global economic panorama is changing. The 2008 financial crisis created new priorities and generated new requirements for both employers and employees. According to a report of the Economist Intelligence Unit (s), Chile leads the countries of the region in terms of the best climate for attracting and retaining talent, followed by Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador.

One of the most practical measures to retain talent is to create a solid scholarship program. In Chile, for example, many scholarships for both specialized training and doctoral programs are granted on the condition that recipients return to work in the country for a certain period of time after completing their studies. In this way, Chile assures the return of human capital, which is pivotal for development and innovation.

In another example, the European Union provides subsidies to study in member countries, enabling students’ increased mobility and facilitating their pursuit of advanced studies.

The countries of the region should develop mechanisms for promoting, protecting and retaining talent to ensure that their valuable human capital can contribute to national development. This would enable individuals like Andrés, Ernesto and Álvaro to develop their skills in a rewarding work environment while at the same time contributing to their countries’ development.

Brain drain in numbers

Figures on college-educated professionals in Latin America vary by country, ranging from 5% in Costa Rica to 14% in Argentina. In Canada, the United States and Spain, rates exceed 15%. According to the World Bank, 30 million Latin Americans live abroad, representing 5.2% of the total population, whereas some 70% of college-educated professionals from the Caribbean emigrate in search of better opportunities.

Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay and Bolivia have the largest number of professionals who emigrate. Most of these migrants – nearly 90% – go to the wealthier OECD countries because they offer the best opportunities for rewarding employment.