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‘Returnatives’ and the rising demand for skilled labor




John Tria

John Tria

A “returnative” generally refers to a person who returns to his native land after spending time living elsewhere. A play on words, “returning,” and “native,” it has come to characterize many “new” residents of Mindanao in recent years seeking opportunity amid the high economic growth, filling the demand for skilled professionals and workers.

I encountered many in my recent travels around the island.

There is the electrician who was once a taxi driver in Cebu. He decided to head back to Mindanao last year to work in a construction company.

Curiously, his story mirrors another one i heard while riding on a taxi in Cebu.

The driver narrates how several former taxi drivers he knew headed home to Davao upon the election of President Rodrigo Duterte. Apparently they sought new opportunity in the burgeoning construction industry.

Then there is the call center or Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) worker and the technopreneur. Two couples I know once worked in Manila, now run successful small BPO ventures.

In Davao City alone there are almost 50,000 direct hire call center employees. Of this number, a local ICT industry official says about 20% are “returnatives” who used to work in either Metro Manila or Cebu.

Many of these “retrurnatives” left Mindanao in decades past when opportunities for career growth were lacking, and violence and poverty left the island blighted.

Lured by lower costs of living, these former residents of other cities seek more abundant pastures in which their salaries can go further. Mindanao has now become such a place for them.

Will we be seeing more “returnatives” in Cagayan de Oro and Davao? Perhaps. It looks like they will fill the need for skilled workers, managers, entrepreneurs, and business leaders in the coming years.

As the Mindanao economy keeps growing at a fast 7%, the possibility that new investments and business expansions will drive up the demand for skilled employees and entrepreneurs.

The groundbreaking for new industries in northern Mindanao, such as the $3.5-billion Panhua steel plant in Misamis Oriental, the expansion of the Axelum coconut processing company, and the Japanese-owned biomass plant in the Caraga region mirror the same entry of investments in southern Mindanao. This includes the expansion of existing companies. This will drive the demand for top-level capabilities and skilled employees.

Already, thousands of square meters of new building spaces are going up to meet the needs of investors, retirees, and new migrants. There will also be a demand for new teachers.

New schools in Davao, such as the Malayan Colleges of Mindanao (Mapua), the Poveda Learning Center, the University of Asia and the Pacific (UA &P), and most recently, the new University of Santo Tomas campus in General Santos will lure many academics from other areas such as Metro Manila to teach.

Unfortunately, however, the below 5% unemployment rates in both the SOCKSARGEN and the Davao regions mean there are not that many local residents available for certain levels of work. These are crucial challenges that need to be met if current 7% growth is to be sustained and new developments such as the digital economy are to be met. It seems that developments are outstripping the supply of skilled labor.

Thankfully, the regional office of the Technical Skills Development Authority (TESDA) has begun working with business groups such as the Davao City Chamber of Commerce and Industry to pilot enterprise based training.

This will enable prospective employees to undergo the necessary pre-employment training which is recognized by TESDA. In case they are not hired by the same company, their training certificates qualify them for national certification.

Likewise, TESDA already has long-term courses that will enable interested students to gain higher level certification. Along with open and distance learning offered by other universities, we hope that the need for more with sharper skills will be met.  The partnership between industry and the academe will be vital to achieving this.

In the end, meeting the requirements of growth means not just available land and resources, but people, for whom development must deliver.

For reactions: facebook.com/johntriapage



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