Marshall Islands: Stopping the brain drain
By Sylvester Kajur
Majuro—In May, the College of the Marshall Islands congratulated the Class of 2022. It was the 29th graduation ceremony to take place at CMI, and was held under the motto, “The past is my heritage, the present my responsibility, the future my challenge.” And challenging the future will be.
Roughly one-third of the Marshallese population live abroad – mostly in the U.S. – and the pandemic has strained the domestic workforce. According to statistics from the U.S. State Department, 11,465 Marshallese are in the labor force spread out over 1,200 small islands and islets across 750,000 square miles of ocean. The government is the country’s largest employer with approximately 46 percent of the total workforce.
The Marshall Islands has a population of 59,194. When the borders finally reopen this October, the brain drain is expected to continue.
The government has made the professionalization of its education system a top priority over the next few years. The success of the CMI and the University of the South Pacific, the Marshall Islands’ only two institutions of higher learning, are crucial in achieving this aim. It is hoped that the more graduates pumped out domestically, the more likely they are to stick around, instead of heading for the exits.
Blessed with glorious weather, the ceremony was full of color, songs and dances. “This is your special day,” President David Kabua said in his speech. “Your parents, guardians and country are so proud of you.”
But the speech soon turned to business. “We need doctors. We need nurses. We need elementary school teachers. We need carpenters. We need welders. We need journalists,” the president said. “Go and finish your education to the highest possible level, and after you do, please come back. Your country needs you.”
CMI is making strides at professionalizing and expanding access to education in the Marshall Islands. It recently opened another distance learning center on Santo Island, which is part of Kwajalein Atoll.
Santo Island’s population is around 1,000, with a large number of children on the island. It first received electricity in 2020, making it one of the last places on earth to power up.
The Pacific Island Times spoke to a number of college staff members who are being made to undertake new training courses, not just to enhance their teaching, but to specifically target areas where students struggle, such as reading, research and connecting to the wider world.
But stopping the brain drain via better quality education is something of a double-edged sword. Even if the hemorrhaging of talent slows or stops, the Marshall Islands still has a labor shortage in key industries.
The two biggest sectors hit by the pandemic were the hospitality and service industries, both closely connected to the tourism sector. Fewer visitors brought in less money and generated less tax revenue. As a result, the government is unable to provide more support for businesses. The Marshall Islands’ biggest hotel has been operating at roughly 20 percent of room capacity. Workers can’t be replaced or rehired yet because they simply aren’t needed.
The domestic market is growing but, due to price hikes, even the locals aren’t buying handicrafts, coconut-based products, and fish like they used to. Now that plans to finally lift the travel restrictions are coming to fruition, the government in Majuro hopes workers will come back with the tourists.
The Marshall Islands is a small economy with an annual gross domestic product of $221 million, per capita income of $4,056 and a 3.5 percent real growth rate. Primary commercial industries include wholesale/retail trade, business services, commercial fisheries, construction, and tourism. Fish, coconuts, breadfruit, bananas, taro, and pandanus cultivation constitute the subsistence sector.
U.S.-based economists attribute the Marshall Islands’ economic limitations to its remoteness from major markets. It is located 2,300 miles from Honolulu, 1,900 miles from Guam, and 2,800 miles from Tokyo.
The Marshallese economy remains dependent on foreign aid. Since 2004, the Marshall Islands has received $800 million in direct assistance from the U.S. under the Compact of Free Association.
At the graduation ceremony, Dr. Irene J. Tafaaki, CMI’s president, countered Kabua’s pleas and lavished praise on the graduates, offering them optimism. “Each one of you is an example of determination. You justly deserve the completion of your program. It has been earned with persistence. Over the past two and a half years, your college days have spanned a time of uncertainty and stress," Tafaaki said. “I hope this persistence is something you will hold onto, just as tightly as the Marshallese navigators held on to the sails of their canoe to make sure it reached its destination.”
A total of 180 college-level graduates passed through CMI this year on different programs. There were 217 certificates and degrees awarded along with 80 students who earned their high school diplomas under the Adult Basic Education program.
On top of that, the U.S. Department of Education awarded the CMI another grant for the continuation of its Upward Bound program. This will last for another five years.