Opinion: The war Colombia cannot afford to lose

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All four left Colombia. And the investment in their training will only benefit other countries.

Before transferring to Duke University, my son Pablo attended two years of his Mechatronics Engineering at the National University of Colombia. There he had three friends: Julio, Julián, and Alejandro. All four are already graduates, at enormous expense to the country and to their families.

But none of the four are offering their services to Colombia. Two are living in the United States, one in Germany, and another works out of Bogota for an American company, receiving his salary abroad, and paying no taxes here. He is only waiting to receive his visa and fly away.

With the resources of an emerging economy, college graduates of very high academic standards are being trained, only to join organizations in other countries, where they are greeted with enthusiasm.

Approximately 150 people leave Colombia every day never to return. Ninety per cent are between 15 and 40 years of age. This amounts to some 50,000 economic or political migrants per year. It is a loss of talent that has been going on for more than three decades. The knowledge-based economy upon which the incoming government has high hopes, will not be achieved because their incomplete equation is ignoring the fact that we must attract and retain talent.

Can Colombia compete in a global workplace marked by ageing populations and scarce talent? Is Colombia the place where scientists, engineers, technology experts, physicians, nurses and researchers would choose to develop their careers?

Sorry. I don’t think so.

Not only do we pay poor wages, but we fall short in the rest of the elements that should be included in an attractive value promise for talent. Let’s discuss a few.

A young professional would have to pay a tax rate in Colombia that is nominally below those paid in the United States, Europe, Australia, or other developed countries. However, they must compensate for our state’s shortcomings.

Indeed, competent professionals in Colombia must pay for their kid’s private education, because public education, according to estimations of the Ministry of Education, is mediocre and offers reduced labor possibilities for recent graduates.

Through additional and complementary private medical plans, they will pay for their own coverage, as the state’s offering is well below the standards they expect.

Similarly, in Colombia expensive surveillance services are necessary, with armed guards in the buildings, because the state does not guarantee security.

Public transportation is also not at the level of those offered in developed cities, so working professionals resort to their own means.

They must finance their own pensions, because the national system does not guarantee an acceptable income for retirees.

Colombians also pay one of the highest sales taxes in the world. High taxes are paid for gasoline, plane tickets, financial transactions, and many other services. Now, the incoming administration is announcing tax hikes and additional taxes. Anyone making more than US$2500 per month is considered “rich” by the newly appointed Finance Minister.

And what if they stay in the country?

We live in messy, dirty, unplanned, and chaotic cities. There are no pleasant, safe, and accessible public spaces for most residents. Cyclists, motorcyclists, and street vendors are the owners of sidewalks, where it is an adventure to walk. Insecurity is palpable. We see how every day corrupt politicians steal the public resources over and over. And they are re-elected. And they become proud members of the “grand national alliance.”

Colombia will never replace the extractive economy with a knowledge-based economy if university graduates are only wishing to move abroad.

But instead of creating incentives to retain these individuals, they are now being labeled as wealthy and targeted to squeeze them even more out of their nascent “fortunes.”

I wonder: will they be offered a competitive education for their children? Could they rely on public security? Will they have access to health service of high standards? Will there be a decent quality public transport? Will they receive a decent retirement?

I doubt it. They will continue to pay twice for what the state should provide. This has always been the case, and it would not be fair to blame the incoming government for this situation.

Losing this population at such a cost – and rate – is more of a tragedy since Colombia´s demographic structure resembles that of aging countries. Since the early 90´s, each year less children are born compared to the year before. Every year less individuals are entering the economy; and there has been an acute reduction in numbers of new students admitted to college: 23% over four years (nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic).

The talented individuals with skills and potential of value to a modern economy will leave as soon as they realize that their cousins and friends living abroad are thriving in countries that are genuinely committed to attracting the individuals that will keep their aging countries operating.

Meanwhile, in Colombia we will be waving goodbye at planes carrying our most valuable assets, wondering why it is so difficult to find talent for our local companies, and ignoring why our “new economy” is no more than a campaign cliché.

About the author: Jorge Ortiz is a consultant to management. He holds a degree in Law and MBA.