Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Romania Fears Brain Drain

Too many promising youngsters are heading West in search of better jobs.
By Marian Chiriac

Mihai Mateescu graduated from a Romanian medical school around seven years ago. Qualified as a general practitioner, he works full time at a Bucharest clinic but also sees patients privately at home. Despite having two jobs, he still earns no more than 306 US dollars a month.

"It is almost impossible to achieve anything in Romania, where the health system is a mess and is getting worse," he told IWPR. "I'm tired of it."

But not for much longer. By the end of July, Mihai will have moved to Canada, where he has found work in a clinic. "I am over-qualified for the job but my salary will be four times higher," he said.

Stefan, another qualified doctor, feels just as disappointed. "Almost every Romanian doctor dreams of emigrating," he said. For a while, he has put medical career plans on hold and has started another business to raise some money.

"It's especially hard for young doctors to survive," he said. "They spend all their time trying to make a living, when they should be resting, reading and studying."

Low wages and lack of opportunities are only some of the factors driving young Romanians to leave in ever increasing numbers. The trickle of emigrants threatens to turn into a flood as graduates scent better opportunities elsewhere.

More than 15,000 graduates now leave the country annually, a figure that has remained steady for the last five or six years, according to a study this month by the Foundation for an Open Society. Furthermore, a quarter of high school graduates dream of leaving, according to the same study.

Since the end of the communist era in 1989, hundreds of thousands of Romanians have gone abroad in search of better wages and opportunities. Destinations of choice are the United States, Western Europe and Israel. However, most of these emigrants are manual labourers.

The government admits that the loss of much of its "brightest and best" is hindering attempts to drag the country out of poverty.

"The brain drain is a reality and for the foreseeable future there do not seem to be any solutions," said Nicolae Idu, director of the European Institute in Romania.

"But we must not exaggerate it. Rather, we must talk about the free circulation of Romania's elite, which is bringing us closer to the West."

Idu adds that the problem is not simply that young people are leaving, but that Romania is not offering them many reasons to return.

Unlike most neighbouring countries, it has not come up with a convincing strategy aimed at luring Romanian expatriates into coming home.

Programmes launched over the past few years, such as "Return to Romania", which IREX and the US embassy in Bucharest supported, proved limited in their scope and degree of success.

"When young specialists return, they have neither financial nor professional rewards and they have problems reintegrating," said Idu.

"Some young people who get government grants sign contracts that they will return, but when they do, there aren't jobs for them, and they have to take work for which they are overqualified."

While the country's leaders hope that the high-tech boom sweeping Romania may slow the exodus of Information Technology professionals, local companies have to fight hard to counter the disincentive posed by the tax rate.

At 19 per cent, it is low by European standards, but IT companies in Romania say it needs to be even lower if professionals are going to come back to the country and work for small salaries.

Even the best jobs in the local labour market cannot keep IT-skilled Romanians. Many stay only a few years in order to gain experience. "We can even afford to be choosy", said a computer programmer who works in Bucharest for a US company, earning 1,000 dollars a month.

"With my qualifications and abilities I'd be paid more than double that in any western country," he added.

Marian Chiriac is IWPR/BIRN project manager in Bucharest

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