The Skilled Worker Exodus


Puerto Ricans are leaving their storm-ravaged island in search of work – and companies are recruiting them.

By Susan Milligan Senior WriterMay 11, 2018, at 6:00 a.m.
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SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — To job-seekers in a place that has double-digit unemployment, severe damage from two punishing, back-to-back hurricanes, and an ongoing fiscal crisis, the advertised jobs look awfully appealing. There’s “competitive compensation,” health insurance, life insurance, tuition assistance, a 401(k), free meals and a $1,000 bonus, in two installments, if you stick with it a year. But the jobs aren’t on what locals proudly call “La Isla Del Encanto” (Isle of Enchantment). They’re in Cincinnati, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other faraway locales. And while the jobs themselves – working in food service at U.S. airports and in highway rest stops – might not be glamorous, they are still a step up for Puerto Ricans desperate for reliable work and worried that their battered island home might not recover enough, or in enough time, to provide a future for themselves and their children.

“This is perfect for a person who has to start from zero,” says Amos Torres, 34, as he attended a job fair by HMSHost, the world’s largest provider of food and beverage services for travelers. Torres loves his home, but “the environment is not good, so I’m looking for new opportunities,” adds the San Juan resident, who worked at a shop in historic Old San Juan before it was destroyed by Hurricane Maria last year. He now works as a line cook at a Dave & Buster’s, where he’s paid $8.75 an hour and offered 20-30 hours a week. The hurricane, fiscal crisis and his frustrations with the current Puerto Rican government have made Torres ready to move.

HMSHost is among a slew of employers, both public and private, who have come looking for workers in Puerto Rico. School districts, police departments, medical facilities, landscaping companies and hospitality industry firms have come calling here for recruits. It can benefit both sides: U.S. employers find people who are bilingual, may have family on the mainland, and – because Puerto Ricans are American citizens – do not require a hard-to-get work visa.

And for Puerto Rican job-seekers? “Its a good chance for people,” says Fanny Morales, assistant regional human resources director for HMSHost. “They already know people who are leaving [the island] anyway. They’re now given the opportunity to leave with a job.”

Medical personnel, who were complaining about not getting paid for services long before Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit last year, have been moving to the mainland. And people in the hospitality field, a key labor sector for the Caribbean island’s tourism industry, are looking for new work as Puerto Rico strains to recover. Across the street from the Verdanza Hotel, where HMSHost was recruiting, major tourist hotels were largely empty and offering just basic accommodations, the clean, white-sand beaches of the Isla Verde neighborhood bereft of the usual throngs of sunbathers and the hotel workers who bring them drinks and towels.

“As long as we keep losing our human capital, the teachers, police, health care professionals, it’s going to hurt the possibility of a sustainable economic recovery,” says Gustavo Velez, president at CEO of Inteligencia Economica Inc.”It’s a Catch-22 situation,” with people leaving because of the economy and damage, making it even harder for Puerto Rico to repair itself structurally and financially, Velez says.

Anibal Acevedo Vila, a former governor of Puerto Rico, says the crisis extends to those needed for the island’s literal infrastructure repair. Acevedo Vila recently hosted on his radio show an engineering industry representative, who discussed the loss of engineers. Even the power company workers are leaving, meaning there are not enough workers to help repair a power grid so damaged that some people in the small mountain villages have not had power since before Irma hit in September of last year.


Local officials cannot provide hard numbers for how many people have left, in specific professions, since the hurricane. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Puerto Rico lost 100,000 people (from 3.4 million to 3.3 million) from July, 2016 to July, 2017. A report by Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies calculates that 135,000 more people left the island in the six moths following Hurricane Maria.

Those departures are part of a longer-term exodus Puerto Rico has been experiencing for the last decade, largely due to the financial crisis (the island, more than $70 billion in debt before Maria landed, is under a U.S. Congress-appointed financial control board that is overseeing debt restructuring and recommending budget cuts deeply unpopular with locals). The biggest out-migration from the island was in the 1940s (also for economic reasons) and the current departures, Acevedo Vila says, are likely to be bigger.

Aside from the loss of skilled labor, the migration presents a looming demographic crisis, he adds. “We are losing people who are [not only] educated, but in their most productive ages. On average, our population is aging, with younger people leaving and older people staying. It puts a lot of pressure on social services and health services. And if you don’t have the upcoming generation willing to be part of the economy, it’s a big challenge.”

But for mainland employers, Puerto Rico’s crisis is an opportunity to get workers, especially with the mainland unemployment rate below 4 percent while Puerto Rico’s stays above 10 percent. “This is part of the aftermath of any jurisdiction under the American flag after a natural disaster takes place. It happened with Katrina. It happened after some fires in California,” says economist Antonio Fernos, associate professor at the Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico. “That’s particularly [the case] where the economy is unable to revamp itself because there are structural changes to be made and we have lagged 20 plus years in addressing them,” he adds, referring to Puerto Rico’s financial problems.

BrightView, the nation’s largest landscaping agency, has been bringing Puerto Ricans to the mainland for temporary work for a number of years, says Sarah Powenski, vice president and assistant general counsel for the Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania-based firm. “It’s a constant challenge” to find workers,” even with all the efforts we do domestically to recruit,” she says. With works visas for foreign workers more complicated to secure, BrightView brings 200-250 Puerto Ricans up to work seasonal jobs each year, she says.

Local newspaper ads offer mainland jobs – some with very generous relocation assistance (HMSHost offers plane tickets and 30 days in a hotel for entry-level workers and far more for managers). The Behavioral Health Network is looking for therapists and case coordinators for youth and adult mental health services – in Massachusetts. The Seaford, Delaware, school district wants bilingual teachers for its language immersion program for elementary schoolers.

The district had been recruiting from Spain, but “it’s become a challenge to keep the teachers here after the three years” the district asks teachers to commit to, as part of the program, says Duncan Smith, director of human resources and public relations for the Delaware district. Teachers from Barcelona, for example, found the relocation to a rural area to be too much of an adjustment. “This was an opportunity for us to find some experienced educators,” he says – and they don’t need visas.

“The goal is, when you have something like the devastation in Puerto Rico, to do everything we can to help professional people who are displaced,” Zwicker says. He says he understands the burden those departures might put on Puerto Rico, but adds, “people make these decisions for a variety of personal reasons. It’s not clear to me the human infrastructure will just leave.”

Given the economic situation, “can you blame them?” Fernos-Sagebien says. For the economy and the tourism sector in particular to recover, “it’s going to take some time,” he says. The clock, however, may run out along with the island’s skilled workers.

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