SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Young Puerto Ricans were frustrated by limited job prospects on an island that had staggering unemployment — at over 12 percent, it is more than double the mainland’s rate — even before the governor’s announcement in June of an “unpayable” $72 billion public debt. On Monday, the island defaulted on a $58 million bond payment, further muddling the outlook for a recovery.
For many, the search for a job is a frustrating one, and as the crisis unfolds, it is likely to get only more difficult. “I’ve been looking for work for more than six months here in Puerto Rico,” said Steven Rodriguez, 19, a criminal justice student at University of the Sacred Heart in San Juan as he walked through the streets of the Luis Llorens Torres housing projects where he lives.
“I submit my resume everywhere, even in places you can’t imagine. And I’m still here without work. The economic situation is getting really tough,” he added.
That has given a burst of life to worries in Puerto Rico about a brain drain of educated citizens picking up and heading to the rest of the United States in search of better job prospects. But in fact, the situation is more complex than an exodus simply of the island’s best and brightest. Leaving is something that almost all sectors of the population have been increasingly seeking to do.
Some of those are among the better educated. The Institute of Statistics of Puerto Rico releases a report each year detailing the profile of residents leaving Puerto Rico. The institute’s Migrant Profile 2012 report, released in January 2014, noted an uptick in the number of those leaving with some postsecondary education.
“The percentage of outmigrants with some postsecondary education grew from 43 percent in 2011 to 52 percent in 2012,” the report noted, and “between 500 and 2,500 teachers left in 2012.”
But experts say the situation is not as simple as a brain drain. “It’s not just an outmigration of the most-educated people. It’s an outmigration of workers,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, the director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center, “and that’s true of people who might be doctors or lawyers but also true of people who might be technicians or engineers or truck drivers.”
According to the Migrant Profile 2013 report, 84 percent of Puerto Rican men and 67 percent of Puerto Rican women who migrate to the mainland do so for work or to find work, a slight increase over the previous year. (Others cite retirement and family reasons as their main reason for leaving.)
“I don’t think it’s what some people have called a brain drain, because when I look at specific occupations like doctors or engineers, it doesn’t seem like a majority of those leaving are in the upper sectors,” said Jorge Duany, the director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, who has written extensively about Puerto Rican migration.
Researcher Kurt Birsin at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York describes the so-called brain drain as “not evident” and said that those moving from Puerto Rico to the mainland are actually “more likely blue collar, with representative levels of education” and more likely to work in agriculture, construction and maintenance.
A 2012 report on the Puerto Rico economy by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York also notes a “disproportionate share of outmigrants with less than a college degree.”
“Outmigration has not necessarily led to a brain drain,” wrote Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz, who work in the bank’s research and statistics group, in “The Causes and Consequences of Puerto Rico’s Declining Population.” “If anything, Puerto Rico’s outmigrants tend to be somewhat lower skilled than the population overall.
But people leaving the island — especially young people — is disconcerting whether they are doctors or doormen. Fewer working adults strains government resources, reduces economic activity and concentrates the burden of supporting pensions and government services for the aging population among a smaller group.
“So as long as they leave, it’s going to cause a problem for the labor market and, of course, going forward, for the taxes and the fiscal revenue that will be derived from this population,” said Heidie Calero, a veteran economist in Puerto Rico.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York researchers also note that low-skilled and less-educated workers have been heavily affected by widespread unemployment and that the numbers of those workers leaving would likely be even higher if not for “economic constraints that might make the cost of moving prohibitive.”
Christian Martinez, 19, who also lives in Luis Llorens Torres, hopes to eventually get enough money together to go the States, like a friend of his who moved to Nebraska. In the meantime, he’s working odd jobs — washing cars, running errands, painting, helping people with moving.
He agreed it isn’t just educated professionals he sees leaving.
“I would say it’s all kinds of people — upper class, lower class, all of them,” he said. “It’s something normal.”