Jersey’s brain drain: why the young are leaving and don’t want to return

How Jersey needs to incentivise younger workers to the island

Ollie Taylor
Nine by Five Media

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Source: pxhere.com

First published in the Jersey Evening Post on the 01/07/2023

As recently reported in this paper, Economic Development Minister Kirsten Morel has stated that he would like to create incentives for Jersey students to come to back at some point, once they have completed their studies. He talks about a perceived ‘brain drain’.
‘We are effectively funding other jurisdictions’ economies, and we should be doing more to stop this brain drain. To put it in pure economic terms, the island is not getting enough return on our investment,’ he told this newspaper.

There is a lot to unpack in that brief statement, not least the point of framing our young as investments that require a return, rather than Jersey citizens who deserve the best opportunity to decide their own futures.
However, the main concern is that maybe Jersey’s best and brightest are leaving, never to be seen again by a local employer. There is evidently a brain drain going on, the minister himself has said only half of those receiving funds are returning.

Although this really needs to be properly investigated by the government, a big driver for the lack of return is that there’s really not much to excite 20-year-olds here, as well as the obvious lack of diverse career options. I have asked a number of students in their 20s from Jersey whether they would like to return after university. Positively, all seemed keen to do so, just not straight after they finish their studies.

One, named Jasmine, said she would ‘like to come back when I’m older but not straight after university as the night-life isn’t that good, and it’s an ageing population. I would be more willing to return if they had more social nights/events in Jersey for 20-year-olds’.

Another, Ruth, said: ‘I want to come back to Jersey, but not necessarily straight after uni as I need more experience and there isn’t much opportunity for me within my degree to get any experience here. It would also be nice to live here when I’m older, just not sure if it’s the right environment for someone in their 20s.’

Ella said: ‘I would definitely come back to Jersey at some point, but not sure if I would straight away because there may be more opportunities for me in the UK, an improvement to nightlife and cheaper housing would make me more willing to return.’

Georgia, who is studying fashion, said: ‘I think I would like to come back to Jersey in the future, however due to my course I don’t think there’s much room so work or gain experience in Jersey so would probably want to start my journey after uni somewhere in the UK. I think if Jersey expanded their careers relevant to the fashion industry, I would be more inclined to come back. I also feel as though there isn’t much for our demographic to do in our free time, which would be a big change from going to uni in the UK.’

It’s not just local university students not wishing to return, either. Jersey also appears less attractive for the working-age young as a whole. The number of arrivals aged 20 to 34 years in 2021 compared with 2011 is down 35%. At the 2021 Census, around half (54%) of recent arrivals were below 35 years, compared to almost two-thirds of recent arrivals (64%) at the 2011 census.

And although it was during the period of the UK leaving the EU and the Covid pandemic, over the three years from 2019 to 2021, net migration in Jersey was outwards. Meaning more people, the vast majority of whom held ‘Entitled’ to work status, were emigrating than coming in, with an average of 180 people leaving each year, over and above those arriving.
This is why the whole idea of myopically looking at the brain drain just from a Jersey-born perspective is counterproductive and will ultimately be to the detriment of the Island’s economic future. The thinking needs to be more inclusive, whether we like it or not, globalisation means Jersey competes for skills and labour in a global market, and we’re not fairing too well.

If you take the OECD’s Better Life Index, which compares wellbeing across countries based on 11 topics the OECD has identified as essential in the areas of material living conditions and quality of life, Jersey ranks 24th out of 41 nations, having dropped five places since 2019. In terms of overall well-being, this places Jersey below the OECD average and comparative countries such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and France.

Jersey is also below the OECD average for disposable income. Between 2001 and 2022 earnings have remained essentially flat in real terms, decreasing by 1.1% over the 21-year period. A government record of overseeing two lost decades of no rise in earnings, in real terms. Despite this, the government has now stated that workers in Jersey will have to increase their productivity by at least 7.5% over the next 17 years if the Island is to support its increasing number of pensioners without significant population growth.

Then there is the obvious issue of the lack of affordable housing, which arguably isn’t just a localised problem but is particularly acute here, with the last housing report stating that a working household on an average income is not able to service a mortgage affordably on an average-priced house of any size, or even a two-bedroom flat. There are also many examples of workers struggling to find suitable and affordable rental accommodation, with advertised average rental prices having gone up by 87% since 2008.

If the Jersey government can make inroads in dealing with these fundamental issues then we will naturally become a more attractive place to work, for locals and foreigners. There should be no differentiation when looking for the skills we need to secure our future. As the latest 2021 census states, the proportion of adults aged 16–64 with higher education qualifications increased from around a third in 2011 to 42% in 2021 ‘primarily due to inward migration’.

In other words, Jersey has already been economically benefitting from the education of people that the Island did not financially contribute towards, so we need to be careful about using the language of ‘effectively funding other jurisdictions’ economies’ by giving grants to students who don’t return. We must also guard against what seems to be a wider anti-foreigner sentiment in Jersey that always rears its head when local, high-profile, job positions are looking to be filled.

And all the while, in the background, the Jersey government promotes a ‘High Value Resident’ scheme that attracts wealthy people away from countries, usually where they made their wealth, thereby depriving those countries of taxes and the income gained by them spending their wealth there. So, what’s good for the goose.

However, all these issues aside, one solution to make Jersey a more dynamic, diverse and attractive place for the young and skilled to come and work is the creation of what’s termed a ‘knowledge industry’.

Dr Sean Dettman, director of the Jersey International Centre of Advanced Studies, which collaborates with the University of Exeter in offering postgraduate research that focuses on islands and island communities, had this to say on the matter:

‘The Minister is 100% correct to raise the issue and there are no easy answers. However, one possible solution would be to facilitate the development of a ‘knowledge industry’ — ie teaching, learning and civilian research — in Jersey to attract students and professionals from elsewhere. Not only would this help offset any problems of a ‘brain drain’ in Jersey, it is a proven and viable business model. There is a lot of evidence demonstrating the positive effects a university, research centre, etc has on a community, both in terms of workplace productivity and in economic returns. I think we can all agree that Jersey would be an ideal place to study, live and potentially work.’

This mirrors the view of Tony Moretta, CEO of Digital Jersey, who told me: ‘I think some sort of university here would retain more young people, bring new young people in who would (a) make it more attractive for young people to stay (b) work in hospitality part-time to supplement their incomes hence fill a gap and reduce immigration then (c) join the workforce post graduation as many want to stay in university town. It would also bring research and development here. It’s why we have been building up relationships with UK universities, as well as for Impact Jersey.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Jersey is predominantly a gerontocracy, an island run by older people for older people. Understandable, being that they’re the voting majority. However, that may keep the golf courses lush and green, but it’s not going to diversify our economy or attract a skilled workforce when they inevitably retire in large numbers — and soon.

Jersey’s ageing working demographic from 2021 Census

The government needs to start taking a serious interest in the young and the kinds of things that will incentivise them to come live and work in Jersey, while also accepting at the same time many born here will want careers outside of finance, and to experience the opportunities that the world has to offer. That is something they shouldn’t be penalised for by loading them with debt, especially when these generations are looking to be worse off than their parents.

Jersey should be able to offer wealth and opportunity to all those willing and able to work for it, when their skills are needed. Helping contribute towards a future of rising productivity, sustainable growth, affordable housing, with a reasonable cost of living and a comfortable retirement. This can be achieved, but it will involve fixing a lot of systemic issues that have been holding the Island back for a long time. I believe it can be done, through the right people with the right skills, all invested in our island’s future, whether they’re from here or not.

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Ollie Taylor
Nine by Five Media

Jersey (UK) Evening Post columnist and founder of Nine by Five Media. Always looking for the local angle. Views are all mine and not that of any employer.