The brain drain in Eastern Europe needs a strong remedy

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According to a 2016 International Monetary Fund (IMF) report, nearly 20 million people left Central, Eastern and Southern Europe (CESEE) during the last 25 years – amounting to a staggering 5% of the region’s population. And the demographic trend for the future does not look any brighter: if nothing changes, long-term forecasts compiled by the UN show that no fewer than six Eastern European nations — Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Moldova and Poland — are set to lose 40% or more of their populations by the end of this century due to the combined effect of a low birth rate and emigration.

Emigration imposes a heavy cost on the CEE countries’ economies as the people leaving are mostly young and well-educated. Ironically enough is this brain drain directly linked to one of strongest assets of eastern Europe: a tradition for solid STEM education and the availability of some of the best programmers and engineers in the world.

What could be done to reverse the trend?

While mega trends, such as globalization, digital transformation, demographic and cultural changes transform the world arounds us, they also – very significantly – transform the workplace. The expectations towards what a successful career looks like change before our eyes – work-life coexistence, the possibility of working remotely, focus on result, not on the “working hours” – these are the expectations of Generation Z, just now entering the workforce.

In the report entitled “The Rise of the Digital Challengers” McKinsey insists on the importance of “attractive workplaces directly connected to the digital economy (that) can help keep local talent in the region, or even attract back specialists who have left.”

What could these “attractive workplaces” be? Well, creative, digital hubs, deeply interconnected with local universities and specific industries, whether automotive, mining or food – places where policymakers and business leaders work hand in hand to create an attractive digital ecosystem, with strong support for entrepreneurship.

Today, technology enables work scenarios that sounded like science fiction a few decades ago. The InSight mission to Mars has been completed by an international team of research and engineering institutions – including five universities and government agencies from Poland – working remotely. If working in remote teams, we can send a lander to Mars, imagine what we can accomplish in more down-to-earth tasks?

Modern workplace

Towards a brain regain

Given that ‘you catch more flies with honey than vinegar’, more companies in CEE might want to consider using more stimulating work environments, with flexible working locations and time as a form of encouragement for their talent to stay. At Dell Technologies, one’s location is definitely not a key defining factor in one’s career – I myself, am a remote employee most of the career.

Amongst other CEE countries Hungary is already playing that card, as it has launched the Lendület (meaning ‘Momentum’) funding scheme to attract internationally acclaimed scientists and young researchers by either hiring them from abroad or keeping them in Hungary.

But the most impressive example of a financial incentive for ‘going back home’ probably comes from Portugal. After being hit hard by the financial crisis between 2008 and 2015, the country’s economy is now recovering and the government has passed a law entitling citizens who left the country up until 2015 and who return home by 2020 a discount of 50 per cent on their annual tax return. It is too soon to draw final conclusions on this program, but Portuguese expats have started returning to the country, showing that brain regain is possible.

As always, I am happy to read your comments and hear about initiatives fighting the brain drain, both from those who stayed and from those who left.

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