October , 1999

CCPE Report

Research Needed to
Counteract Brain Drain Hype

By Dan Levert, P.Eng., LL.B.

Dan Levert is President and CEO of the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers.

As a profession, we should be concerned when a report published by a respected organization states that 52 per cent of all new engineering graduates in Canada from 1995 to 1997 immigrated to the United States. Based on the data compiled in CCPE's Canadian Engineers for Tomorrow, Trends in Engineering Enrolment & Degrees Awarded 1993-1997 report, this would mean that we have lost approximately 12,433 of the 23,929 engineering students who graduated from a Canadian university in those three years.

In fact, the 52-per-cent Canadian engineering graduate 'brain drain' that Mahmood Iqbal postulates in his 1999 study, Are We Losing Our Minds?, Trends Determinants and the Role of Taxation in Brain Drain to the United States, published by The Conference Board of Canada, appears to be invalid. A study conducted by Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) and Statistics Canada (Stats Can) this year, South of the Border, Graduates From the Class of '95 Who Moved to the United States, found that only 448, or 5.5 per cent, of the more than 8,000 individuals who graduated from a Canadian engineering or applied science program in 1995 had immigrated to the U.S. by the summer of 1997. Of those graduates, 18 per cent had returned to Canada by March 1999, and 43 per cent of those who were still in the U.S. planned to return to Canada eventually.

It's also interesting to note that while the Conference Board report blamed high Canadian taxes for the 'brain drain' to the U.S., the HRDC/Stats Can report found the majority of graduates emigrated to the U.S. to take advantage of better employment or education opportunities, and that lower taxes were not a factor in their decisions. The HRDC/StatsCan report drew its conclusions from actual interviews with graduates, while Mr. Iqbal relied on an econometric analysis to establish a quantitative link between emigration and the factors responsible for it.

All the recent media hype about the 'brain drain' appears to be part of a concerted effort to gain public and government support for federal income tax reductions. This is reflected by the scant coverage the National Post gave to the HRDC/Stats Can report's release its front page featured a story on the results of a national poll that found 82 per cent of Canadians think the brain drain is real, and 63 per cent want tax cuts to be introduced to stop it. The story on the HRDC/Stats Can report was buried in the business section. Other newspapers, including the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Hamilton Spectator, and Ottawa Citizen also ran one-sided stories on the Conference Board report and the brain drain. CCPE drafted a letter to the editor expressing concerns over the media's unbalanced coverage of the brain drain issue, and submitted it to the five newspapers. It was subsequently published by the Spectator and the Citizen.

From engineering's perspective, the results of the Post's national poll are significant only because they indicate 82 per cent of Canadians are misinformed about the brain drain. Similarly, despite the alarming statistics reported by the Conference Board, the real issues for our profession are the unbalanced coverage the media gave to Mr. Iqbal's study on the brain drain and its contribution to public misconception. According to Stats Can and other authorities, Mr. Iqbal's methodology is questionable. His findings were also refuted by the HRDC/Stats Can study, and are not supported by anecdotal evidence.

However, both studies point out another issue we must come to grips with as a profession, namely our lack of knowledge about what Canada's engineering graduates actually do when they leave school. Some may indeed immigrate to the U.S. Others may pursue graduate degrees, or enter different fields or professions altogether. We simply don't know.

On average, only 60 per cent of our engineering graduates ultimately register with their provincial or territorial regulatory engineering association, and recent evidence suggests this percentage is declining. Determining why 40 per cent of graduates choose not to register and what they do following graduation will be essential if we hope to respond effectively to future media reports on the brain drain issue, or develop programs to promote the value of registration and bring these graduates into the fold. CCPE, through the Canadian Engineering Resources Board, is designing a new study to gather data in these areas. Combined with the ongoing research of Stats Can, this study will help Canada's engineering profession manage the challenges facing us as we approach the new millennium.


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