Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Brain Drain in Puerto Rico

By:Minerva Santiago

Since the recent recession and Puerto Rico’s declining job market, there are more students being faced with the dilemma of staying in Puerto Rico or moving to the United States. More than 225,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to the United States in the last seven years, most of them have no choice but to leave the island where they were raised, seeking a better future for themselves.

As of August 2013, the unemployment rate was at 13.5 percent, worse than any state in the United States. “I can see it in my students’ eyes, they’re thinking if they should stay or leave to the United States,” said Orlando Sotomayor, an economics professor at University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez at a panel held at UPRM on October 17, 2013.

This decision isn’t always up to the student. The harsh reality is that once people graduate college it’s hard for them to find a job in their specific field. As Sotomayor said, “In Puerto Rico there are approximately 150 jobs for chemical and mechanical engineers, that is about the size of one class at UPRM.”

One influencing factor is that many companies based in the United States come to Puerto Rico to recruit undergraduate students for internships and early job offers. “UPRM is like a filter that tells people who are the best students,” said Michael González, a sociology professor at UPRM who also spoke at the panel. Some of these companies offer internships to students as early as their second year. By the time students graduate from college, they might already have a job with the company.

Sometimes the only choice students have in order to work in the field which they prepared themselves is to move to the United States. “Out of 136 chemical engineers that graduated UPRM two years ago, 97 of them moved to the United States,” said González.

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Left to right: Bryan Rullán, Orlando Sotomayor, and Michael González at the panel held on October 17, 2013 on the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez campus.

Some of the students who leave wish to return to Puerto Rico after gaining the work experience from top ranked companies in the United States. Mechanical engineering student Bryan Rullán, a student speaker at the panel, feels this way. “I plan to gain experience working in a company based in the United States, and then move back to Puerto Rico and use that experience to help my family’s business, Sun Boricua,” he said.

Another reason people choose to move to the US is the quality of universities in Puerto Rico versus universities in the United States. In a survey conducted on September 3, 2013 to five students in the UPRM campus, 60 percent of students said it doesn’t matter in which country you study, what matters is the university’s quality. Most of the students agreed that the quality of a university doesn’t depend on its location, but the individual college. “Good professors are what make a good university,” said Sotomayor.

Puerto Rico had a similar wave of migration from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. About half a million people moved to the United States between these years. The main difference is that, “the people that left between the 1940’s to 1960’s weren’t educated; and most of the people that are leaving now are educated,” said González.

Quality of life and cost of living are also a deciding factor. “Utilities are more expensive in Puerto Rico that in the United States; and that influences a higher cost of living in Puerto Rico than in the United States,” said González. “In the United States the cost of living is lower and there are more opportunities.”

A study conducted by the Institute of Statistics quoted in El Nuevo Día stated that of about 76,000 people that left the island in 2011, there were 2,000 teachers, 300 doctors and 170 lawyers. Sotomayor suggests the solution to the brain drain problem, “It is not enough to tell people not to leave; we have to make Puerto Rico a country where people don’t want to leave.”

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