Econ-Atrocity: Global Poaching–Jamaica’s Brain Drain

By Brenda Wyss, CPE Staff Economist

Jamaica is hemorrhaging nurses and teachers. The Jamaica Gleaner reports that Jamaica loses roughly 8% of its RNs and more than 20% of its specialist nurses annually. Most go to the US or the UK. The US, with 97.2 nurses per 10,000 people, actively recruits nurses from Jamaica, a country with only 11.3 nurses per 10,000 people. Meanwhile, US and British schoolteacher work programs recruit Jamaican teachers for inner city schools in New York City and London. In 2001 alone, 3% of Jamaica’s teachers (almost 500 educators) left the island to accept temporary assignments abroad. Jamaica’s Ministry of Education estimates the country
lost 2,000 teachers between 2000 and 2002. And Jamaica’s brain drain is not limited to nurses and teachers. In fact, an IMF report estimates that more than 60% of all Jamaicans with tertiary education have migrated to the US.

Jamaica’s chronically under-resourced health and education sectors can ill afford the loss of skill. In its 2001 Annual Report, Jamaica’s Ministry of Health reported nationwide vacancy rates of 37% for RN positions, 28% for public health nurses, 17% for nurse practitioners, and 61% for assistant nurses. At the same time, a shortage of trained teachers threatens educational quality. While Jamaica has trained increasing numbers of teachers over the years, the fraction of teachers serving in Jamaica’s schools who are fully trained has declined. Between the 1990-91 and 1996-97 school years, the total share of trained teachers decreased by 11%.

Employment in the US or UK offers significant private benefits, such as higher incomes and new learning opportunities, to individual Jamaicans and their families. But the social costs in Jamaica of the nurse and teacher exodus are large. The loss of skilled health and education professionals threatens the welfare of the population as well as the current and future productivity of Jamaica’s work force. Because nurse and teacher training are heavily subsidized by the government, Jamaica loses returns on a valuable investment. And the losses go deeper still. Emigration of mostly female teachers and nurses strains Jamaican household economies as many children are left behind when moms migrate, increasing the ratio of dependents to caregivers. These social costs seem unlikely to be fully offset by migrant remittances, by the “network” benefits Jamaica reaps from migration, and by skills and capital that returning migrants bring home.

How do Jamaican nurses and teachers fare in the US and the UK? No systematic study documents the experiences of Jamaican nurses and teachers abroad, but a flurry of articles in Jamaican newspapers raise concerns. The articles suggest that Jamaican teachers in New York have suffered last minute notification of employment, a lack of relocation funds, inadequate orientation by their school districts, and placement in the most difficult districts. European and Canadian teachers in New York appear to have enjoyed more favorable terms of employment, including six-year H-1 visas, rather than the two-year J-1 visas granted to Caribbean teachers.

Jamaica’s government is seeking to recoup some of the country’s losses, while preserving the benefits of international mobility for individual Jamaicans and their families. In October of this year, Prime Minister P. J. Patterson proposed that Jamaica train teachers and nurses (both nationals and foreigners) for “export”. The country would benefit from fees charged. The government is also reported to have started discussions with the US about increased US support for tertiary education in Jamaica.

In the meantime, Jamaica has resorted to its own international recruitment. The Government of Jamaica has brought in skilled teachers from Cuba and has contracted with several other governments (including Nigeria, Ghana and Guyana) to provide physicians, nurses, and pharmacists. Unfortunately, these countries face their own skilled labor shortages. As Ghanaian health care professionals arrive in Jamaica, for instance, Ghanaian intensive care units and dialysis machines sit idle for lack of nurses to staff them. The hemorrhaging continues.


Carrington, William and Enrica Datragiache. 1998. “How Big is the Brain Drain?” Working Paper of the IMF. [pdf]

Jamaica Gleaner. “US, UK Seeking More Local Nurses.” May 20, 2002.

Jamaica Gleaner. “Concerns About Carib Teachers Treatment.” August 13, 2001.

Ministry of Health of Jamaica (MOH). 2001. Ministry of Health Annual Report 2001. [pdf]

Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). 2003. Press Release.

Wilkinson, Bert. 2001. “Teachers Seen Getting Raw Deal from New York.” August 20. Inter Press Service.

World Bank. 1999. “Jamaica Secondary Education: Improving Quality and Extending Access, Volume I: Main Report.” Report No. 19069-JM. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.

Zachary, G. Pascal. 2001. “Shortage of Nurses Hits Hardest Where They are Needed the Most.” The Wall Street Journal, January 24. Page A.1.

(c) 2003 Center for Popular Economics

Econ-Atrocities are a periodic publication of the Center for Popular Economics. They are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.