Morocco: The Brain Game

Skilled Labor in the Maghreb

To better understand why people leave, it helps to look at who exactly is leaving.


The challenge of brain drain is one that haunts many developing countries. It sucks skilled workforces out of developing countries and transfers them to industrialized countries. The phenomena is not new, especially for Morocco. Starting around the 1950s and increasing with the 1970s’ immigration policies of many industrialized countries, skilled Moroccans have been leaving their home countries for decades. However, while previously left untouched by governments (perhaps because it offered a way to grow national GDP through remittances), brain drain has been identified as a problem by the current regime.

Indeed, according to a 2018 Arab League Study, there were 50,000 Moroccans studying abroad and 200,000 experts who chose to work outside the country. Furthermore, according to Morocco’s Fédération des Technologies de l’Information, des Télécommunications et de l’Off-shoring (L’APEBI), around 600 engineers leave Morocco each year. And while Morocco produces around 8,000 IT graduates annually, the country’s main IT operators estimate that three foreign companies come every 15 days to recruit dozens of Moroccan engineers.

This industry has prompted Moroccans to leave their scenic country for greener pastures. But to look at it as simply a matter of not having enough jobs is wrong. The quality of research institutions, better pay, and a meritocratic private sector are just some of the economic reasons behind this migration.

The government previously attempted to tackle the problem through two organizations: Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN) and International Forum for Moroccan Competences Abroad (FINCOME).

While TOKTEN aimed to pair up expatriate Moroccans with research institutes in their home country, FINCOME was a way to attract young Moroccan talent back to the home country. But while both have held events that have led to deepening connections between the homeland and their prodigal sons, neither program has really seemed to be able to staunch the flow. Perhaps it is not a matter of creating the right microeconomic solutions but rather of solving larger macroeconomic issues.

To better understand why people leave, it helps to look at who exactly is leaving. Moroccan students who study abroad tend to study science and economics, making up 33% and 30.3% of those who go abroad, respectively, according the Arab League 2018 study.

Outside of university studies, Moroccans who leave usually pursue engineering. For these sectors, research is an important draw. In other words, countries that spend more on R&D efforts are going to be a bigger draw for these types of graduates.

Comparing UN data, France spent about 2.2% of its GDP on R&D while Morocco spent about 0.7% of its GDP in the same period. Even more interestingly, France’s R&D spending is heavily concentrated in the business sector, followed by academia. Meanwhile, Morocco’s R&D is mainly concentrated in academia, followed by the business sector.

These low R&D numbers could be attributed to the type of manufacturing goods Morocco currently produces. While some industrial segments, such as aeronautics, do require higher skill sets, Morocco’s automotive sector, the driver of Moroccan industry, is mostly in need of lower-skilled labor that handles basic body assembly and uses imported, pre-created parts. Due to the lack of high-value added production, firms may not see the need to invest in R&D centers in Morocco.

More recently, the salve to the problem has come in the form of training: countries attracting the most Moroccan talent have been working to “share” the flow by training young Moroccans especially in the ICT fields. For example, Enabel’s 2020 Palim-European project provided ICT training to 120 Moroccans, with 90 staying in Morocco and 30 moving to Belgium after the training.

But with 9,677 initial applicants, the program’s scope was woefully small. Perhaps what might be a better way to incorporate training and grow R&D simultaneously could be the creation of cooperating research centers in both countries.
And by facilitating the growth of R&D centers of foreign universities and companies, the Moroccan government might give young Moroccan talent the soil and sun they need to grow into movers and shakers the country needs.

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