Digital Skills | Youth
May 15, 2020

Combating ICT ‘brain drain’ in Small Island Developing States

by Ingmar Sturm and Dennis Redeker

As national telecommunications networks are upgraded and the cost of Internet connectivity decreases, people living in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are being opened up to new ICT-based economic opportunities.

Yet large numbers of young tech-skilled inhabitants continue to emigrate to larger, more economically developed states around the Pacific Rim.

So how can residents of SIDS – and young people in particular – fully take advantage of this economic potential? And how do the available ICT employment opportunities influence young people’s intention to migrate abroad?

To answer these questions, we investigated how both the ICT skills of young people in SIDS and their participation in capacity-building activities affects their perception of local ICT-based employment opportunities, and whether this impacts their intention to move abroad.

The data collection

In order to collect the data for our analysis, we sent an online questionnaire to young people aged 16-35 years old in five SIDS: The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Palau, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. It included questions about ICT skills, participation in ICT capacity-building activities, economic and employment opportunities as well as migration plans.

We collected 461 completed and valid questionnaires for analysis.

The findings

Our findings indicate that additional efforts are necessary to limit inequities and to realize greater individual ICT-based employment opportunities for medium- to highly-skilled young Pacific islanders.

Policy-makers should address these gaps by encouraging women and men to participate in ICT capacity-building activities at the same rate.

There are variations in the level of ICT skills of young people in SIDS; within-country findings indicate a gap between men and women, as well as between rural and urban areas.

In all countries except Tonga, women and people living in rural areas report significantly lower ICT skills that are relevant for ICT-based employment than men and people living in urban locations. These inequalities may affect their ability to equitably participate in economic opportunities that are unlocked by a strong ICT infrastructure.

Policy-makers should address these gaps by encouraging women and men to participate in ICT capacity-building activities at the same rate, which according to our findings has only been achieved in Fiji.

The urban-rural divide needs to be addressed by ensuring Internet access in rural locations and remote islands, alongside creating ICT capacity-building opportunities for the relevant populations. Specifically, according to our research, capacity-building via e-learning has not achieved uptake in the countries studied. Even in the absence of larger population centres, reliable, fast and affordable Internet access could allow young people to develop their ICT skills through online programmes.

Additional efforts are necessary to limit inequities and to realize greater individual ICT-based employment opportunities for medium- to highly-skilled young Pacific islanders.

However, while ICT skills are globally sought-after, ICT industries require a certain degree of clustering in order to flourish and in turn create ample well-paid employment opportunities for those with the right skills. Therefore, it might not be sufficient for Pacific Islanders to invest in their ICT skills to gain access to the global Internet economy due to the lack of economies of scale in SIDS ICT-intensive sectors.

Importantly, we found no strong link between ICT skills or ICT capacity building and the perceived employment opportunities. This could be explained by a lack of reward, or young people expect higher salaries as their ICT skills develop – or because of other, unobserved factors.

And, while ICT skills or participation in ICT capacity-building activities do not necessarily point to a higher likelihood of emigration away from SIDS – or the intent to migrate – they do not incentivise people to stay, either.

So, although large-scale connectivity projects are underway in SIDS such as new undersea cables that enable high-speed and competitively priced Internet, additional efforts are needed to realize more opportunities for ICT-based employment for medium- to highly-skilled young Pacific islanders.

*Read the full article in the Digital Skills Insights 2019 publication.

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ITU is the United Nations' specialized agency for information and communication technology. Any opinions expressed and statistics presented by third parties do not necessarily reflect the views of ITU.

Combating ICT ‘brain drain’ in Small Island Developing States

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