Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Political crisis accelerates brain drain as MBAs seek careers in calmer lands

Political crisis accelerates brain drain as MBAs seek careers in calmer lands
Business world's up-and-comers flee instability in droves

By Michael Bluhm
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Lebanese MBA graduates are fleeing the country because of the grim political situation, even though they would rather use their know-how at home, students and academics told The Daily Star on Monday. Most emigrants wind up in the Gulf, others in Western Europe or in North America, and they prefer jobs in banking and finance, with a solid majority in service industries. "The bulk of students right now are leaving," said Michel Chalhoub, chair of five MBA programs at the Lebanese American University (LAU). "Sad, isn't it? If things were fabulous, they would certainly stay." Four MBA students at LAU estimated about 70 percent of their classmates were going abroad for work, and they drew a direct connection between the flight and Lebanon's deteriorating political scene. Still, they emphasized that their first choice would be to stay in Lebanon. "We'd love to stay here," said Maggie Tchekijian of Anjar. "It depends on the political situation in the country. Plan A, I want to stay here." "I would like to live here, [but] I think that [students] would love to leave," said Suzanne Khalifeh of Jbeil, an MBA student at the Ecole Superieure des Affaires (ESA). The exodus contributes to a brain drain in Lebanon's economy, Chalhoub said. "It's more than a drain, it's a flight," he told The Daily Star. "[Graduates] tend to favor the Gulf because they feel it's more stable politically." Some 90 percent of MBA grads specializing in the tourism industry are now leaving Lebanon, he estimated. The female students' answers also reflect the key role gender often plays in deciding whether to move away, said Antoine Sabbagh, placement officer at the American University of Beirut. Female MBA graduates far more frequently remain here than their male counterparts, he said. "There is a gender difference," Sabbagh said. "The males in general are being recruited overseas. Because of social, cultural and many other personal reasons, [females'] preference is being employed here in Beirut. Those [females] who have gone abroad return for jobs in Lebanon." One of the reasons some female graduates stay here is that "it's not very easy on a single female" in the Gulf, Sabbagh said. The Gulf also attracts Lebanese MBA grads with higher salaries and greater possibilities for advancement. "Outside we can find better jobs," said LAU undergrad Zeinab Nasser, who plans to get an MBA. In Lebanon, salaries are "limited. It's not like outside. They appreciate you more. If I had the chance, I'd like to work outside Lebanon."
Nasser said finding a job in Lebanon is harder because it sometimes depends primarily on connections - wasta.

Lebanese also have a tradition of working in the Gulf - they built the advertising and marketing sectors there, Chalhoub said. Qatar and Bahrain are frequent destinations, but the cosmopolitan freedom of Dubai - and the abundance of other Lebanese emigres -make it the job-seekers' first choice. "The only place [in the Gulf] where it is very comforting for Lebanese is Dubai," said Sabbagh. Fewer students wind up in Western Europe and North America, although a number of students from ESA find work in France, said Georges Najm, communications manager at ESA. At ESA - the only of Lebanon's three MBA programs taught in French - students "get used to the French mentality" and make connections with the French lecturers and recruiters. "We are encouraging students to stay in Lebanon, [but] now the market has changed," Najm said, citing the connection between politics and the brain drain. "It's definitely linked. This is not a secret." Insiders estimate that less less than 10 percent of MBA grads continue their studies abroad for a doctorate. Three LAU students told The Daily Star they had agreed that their ultimate goal would be to find scholarships to pay for doctoral studies in the United States.

The most popular choice among MBA graduates is a job in the banking and finance sector, said Sabbagh, who described the financial industry as "the employer of choice." Other popular sectors include tourism, travel, marketing, advertising, information technology and auditing. The Gulf also offers more opportunities in construction and development, while consulting firms typically recruit MBA graduates after they have a year or two of work experience. The programs also offer executive MBA programs for people already working in business - these graduates usually stay in their previous jobs, and acquire the executive MBA to better their chances for promotion. Among the traditional MBA programs, LAU has the most students, about 520, while AUB has about 140 and ESA about 35. An MBA costs about $20,000 at LAU, $33,000 at AUB and $9,500 at ESA.

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