Brain Gain: LinkedIn Shows that Filipino Professionals are Coming Home

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On April 15, 2016
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By Micaela Beltran and Rexy Josh Dorado

PLDT, the Philippines’ largest telecommunications firm, has doubled down on its strategy of digital transformationor as one commentator called it: “Adapt or Perish.” One of the key people behind the scenes of this shift is Winston Damarillo, PLDT’s new Chief Strategy Advisor.

Damarillo is an outlier in more ways than one. He is a futurist geek with a knack for building companies and a serial entrepreneur hired into one of the oldest corporations in the Philippines. He is also a balikbayan: a Filipino migrant who built his career in the United States, and is now involved in leading the Philippines’ digital revolution. His is a story that goes against the grain of one of the most persistent trends that have defined the Filipino nation: brain drain.

The current wave of Filipino migration finds its roots in the Marcos era, when the government first played an active role in facilitating overseas employment.  In 1974, there were 36,035 Filipino workers deployed overseas. Since then, the Filipino diaspora population has ballooned to over 10 million in 2013, comprising about 10% of the global Filipino population.

And while many are still going abroad, there’s a small but growing countercurrent of global Filipinos migrating back to play roles in the Philippines. Who are these people, why are they coming back, and what does it mean for our nation?

By mining LinkedIn profile data, searching through blogs, and speaking to some of these balikbayans themselves, we have pieced together an initial investigation of this pattern. What we found out is this: Since the start of the 21st century, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of US-educated, highly skilled balikabayans who are either aggressively being pursued by local companies or lured by better prospects in these booming economic times.  

They’re coming home

350 profiles from LinkedIn were randomly selected from a specific subset of the diaspora: Filipinos who went to one of the 35 top colleges in the United States and are now based in the Philippines. These profiles came from a population of 3,543 such profiles available on LinkedIn.

Though this demographic is distinct from the Filipino diaspora as a whole, it does capture a segment that is important for the fastest growing industries in the Philippines: skilled professionals with highly competitive college degrees. In fact, 73% of our sample holds a postgraduate degree, and the average balikbayan on LinkedIn comes back with 10.35 years of prior experience. To hone in on this kind of international experience, we also excluded profiles of people who only studied in the US through online, short-term, or one-off courses.



Above is a breakdown of when the people in our sample returned to the Philippines. The graph displays a strong and striking upward curve in the number of balikbayans returning home over time. Remarkably, about 40% of our sample returned to the Philippines in the past 5 years, and only a quarter of the sample returned before the year 2000.

What are these balikbayans doing? What kind of industries are they bringing their skills and experiences to? We mined information from LinkedIn’s University Pages, which has ready-to-use information on alumni profiles of hundreds of major universities.

Below is a graph that synthesizes data on those same 35 colleges in the United States and their alumni who work in the Philippines.  This breakdown comes from 1,619 profiles containing industry information for LinkedIn’s University Pages to mine and analyze.


LinkedIn’s University Pages doesn’t come with search filters for ethnicity, so the industry data includes some people who aren’t balikbayans per se and had no connection to the Philippines before moving there. Nonetheless, it gives some insight on what kinds of opportunities are driving people to relocate to the Philippines.

The data show that 50% of grads in our sample were drawn by Entrepreneurship, Operations, Finance, and Consulting. Entrepreneurship leads with 15% of the pie, followed closely by Operations at 13.9% and Consulting at 11.2%.  On the other side of the coin, the top companies drawing global talent are Accenture and the Asian Development Bank. The same data set shows that the Philippines draws disproportionately from a few schools, with Harvard, UCLA, NYU, Northwestern, and UC Berkeley forming the top 5 alma maters.

What drew them back home?

For many people, what pulls them back is a sense that they can do more in the Philippines.  Whether it’s because of their skills, their experiences, or the ideas they’ve been exposed to, they see the role that they can play in the Philippines as a profound opportunity that they can’t have elsewhere:

“When I was working as a designer in the US, it clicked. A lot of things I was doing, the mindsets, the processes, the workshops, the experiences seemed like something I would have enjoyed or I would have been able to use as a teacher [in the Philippines].” Gerson Abesamis, Habi Education Lab

“A lot of Filipinos abroad are starting to think about coming home because they can actually see that they can get stuff done here.”Evan Chen, Endeavor Philippines

“There are more and more people who have had experiences abroad and are using what they’ve learned and experienced and bringing it to the Pinoy context. Experimenting and exploring that deeper – I feel like that’s what’s creating this really exciting vibe.” Terri Jayme Mora, Ashoka Philippines

For others, it’s a sense that the Philippines itself is changing.  The economy is growing, and Filipinos are mobilizing to create solutions to the massive problems that have long faced the country.  These balikbayans feel that they had to play a role in an important turning point:

“It’s different from before. I think there’s an openness to trying new approaches that wasn’t there before.” Terri Jayme Mora, Ashoka Philippines

“The Philippines is going somewhere whether you’re here or not.  You either catch that wave, or you don’t.” Rovaira Dasig, PULSE.PH

What this means for businesses

Their reasons reflect the growing optimism by this segment of the diaspora for the Philippines. At the same time, they also signify an increasingly common sentiment among ethnic and cultural minorities in the West: that their full potential for social and economic contribution is overlooked in a society where the image of success looks nothing like them. A recent survey has shown that most Filipinos in the United States feel overqualified for their jobs.  

Companies in the Philippines can thus provide an alternative path by crafting roles that come with a high level of responsibility, a platform to innovate and lead, and a deep scope for impact.  

One fast-growing startup, Kalibrr, has had some success in recruiting global Filipinos back to the Philippines. Their recent balikbayan hires include Julius Paras, recipient of the prestigious Echoing Green fellowship in social innovation, and Andy Rapista, a young entrepreneur who founded Watson Institute, a 2-month accelerator in Manila for young entrepreneurs.  Both of them were attracted by the opportunity to take their leadership to a new level: by building something that could connect people to opportunities at a national scale.

Companies seeking to hire balikbayans must balance their recruitment with a commitment to enable that kind of leadership and innovation through both freedom and mentorship.

This brings us back to Winston Damarillo and PLDT.  After over a decade of launching and building companies in the US, Damarillo took the position of Chief Strategy Advisor at PLDT.  It’s a tough role, one that necessitates travel back to the Manila every other week from his home in Los Angeles, where his wife and son have already formed strong roots. Damarillo went to work with one of the largest companies in the Philippines because he’s been given a  platform to innovate.

He has made the most of this creative freedom. He has launched Talas, a big data startup within the corporation; managed a new venture capital fund to harness PLDT’s network as a scaling platform for global innovations; and rebuilt PLDT’s Strategy Office as a platform for up-and-coming talent from both local and global Filipino communities.

How government can support returning professionals

Much of the conversation in the Philippines revolves around encouraging more financial investment from the diaspora, often in the form of remittances. It’s not hard to understand why: diaspora remittances currently account for about 10% of Philippine GDP each year. The challenge now lies in breaking past the current emphasis on the remittance economy and engaging global Filipinos in the deeper roles they can play for the Philippines.

The government has long been trying to balance the exodus of Filipino workers with programs that hope to attract OFWs back home after their stint abroad. Part of this comes from the recognition of two specific roles that balikbayans can play: as entrepreneurs who can create jobs and wealth, and as employees in fast-growing industries that can stimulate economic growth.

The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration started a P2-billion reintegration program, offering loans for OFWs who decide to come home for good and put up or expand an existing business in the country. The program has had varying success. Since its inception in June 2011, they have approved 854 loan applications as of December 2013, with a total P632.531 million granted and released. These numbers seem small compared to the 2.3 million overseas contract workers abroad.

Part of the problem seems to stem from a lack of trust regarding some of these government programs. In order to truly reap the benefits of brain gain, the government needs to have a stronger push towards communicating its programs to OFWs more effectively. Beyond this, the government has an opportunity to highlight better opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship that better fit the skills of overseas Filipinos.

One way to do this is to pursue partnerships with the private sector that provide incentives for OFWs to return to high-skills roles. The Department of Labor and Employment has started a partnership with Coca Cola, which hopes to tap into returning Filipinas and support their growth as micro-entrepreneurs.

Another opportunity is to support the recruitment of OFWs to work in current, established companies. On PhilJobNet alone, there are consistently more than 200,000 job postings every year, but these roles aren’t tailored to the unique skills and experiences of Filipinos from the diaspora. The next frontier is to develop platforms that connect diaspora to entrepreneurial and skilled professional roles, especially in industries where local supply of talent isn’t meeting demand.

Opportunities for professional Filipinos overseas

In 2015, Bloomberg profiled the Philippines as the second fastest growing economy in the world. With this growth comes a new hunger for talent and manpower that hasn’t been matched by the supply of skilled labor.  

Global Filipinos can play important roles at this turning pointbut only if they anchor their explorations to the needs and opportunities in the Philippines today.

First, there’s a rising demand for fields like data science and digital marketing, as profits start to shift towards companies that know their customer best and build the strongest relationships at scale. Other in demand jobs for higher level positions include software engineering, sales, architecture, and finance. Filipinos based in other parts of the world who have access to educational and professional resources that are less developed in the Philippines can provide skills that are increasingly needed by the growing economy.

Second, there’s a growing need for seasoned professionals who have had experience growing small ventures into larger operations. In the Philippines, there is a major gap between large, older companies and new, emerging startups. The future of innovation in the Philippines hinges on the growth of new ventures becoming formidable competitors.

Balikbayans with experience in leading the growth of a venturewhether entrepreneurial or intrapreneurialcan play a role within this important niche.  Global Filipinos, especially those living near entrepreneurial hubs, are positioned to learn through experience by working with innovative firms around the world and getting involved in the process of growing and scaling a venture.

Third, the country has endless opportunities for entrepreneurs who want to start their own ventures. The Philippines has a positive business environment, a strong BPO industry, and boasts the youngest population in Southeast Asia. An entrepreneur seeking to grow and scale a venture will find many of the necessary pieces here. An entrepreneur from the diaspora will have the advantage of being an in-between figure: connected enough to Filipino culture to integrate quickly and work easily with local actors, but enough of an outsider to weave between networks and tap into global markets.

The right entrepreneur can turn any weakness into an opportunity, and at this turnaround moment, there are several problems to be solved. This roadmap for the Philippine startup ecosystem offers up a few ideas: initiatives that improve the weak infrastructure, provide an alternative to “Cash on Delivery” payments for e-commerce, and even support the growth of other businesses through consulting.

All of this brings us to the question: When is the right time to go back? The LinkedIn profile information from the main study sheds a bit of light on some demographic details:


While the journeys of the balikbayans varied, the median experience level of people who return to the Philippines is 9 years after college, while the average hovers nearby at around 10.35 years.

But there’s a lot of variance on both ends, and the surge of return migration over the past decade has brought with it a greater diversity of balikbayan profiles.  Only 2% of profiles returned without postgraduate degrees before 2000; after 2000, that number grew by 20%.  During the same time frame, the number of balikbayans who returned over 10 years of experience grew by a factor of 5.

What the data tell us is that it’s never too early nor too late.  Whether you’re a young upstart ready to dive in, a patient explorer trying to make the most of different learning opportunities around the world, or an established professional trying to plan for the next chapter, the time has never been more ripe to think about how to tie it all back to the Philippines.

[Disclosure: Winston Damarillo is a board member of the social enterprise Kaya Collaborative, which is co-founded and led by the two authors of this article. Damarillo is also the Chief Strategy Advisor of PLDT. Stack is powered by Voyager Innovations, the digital arm of PLDT and Smart.]


Rexy Josh Dorado is the founder and chief executive of Kaya Collaborative, a social venture that inspires, educates, and mobilizes diaspora youth as partners to long-term, locally led social change in the Philippines. He finished his BA Economics with magna cum laude distinction at Brown University.
Micaela Beltran is the Chief Operations Officer of Kaya Collaborative. She’s taking her undergrad degree in government at Georgetown University.

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  1. Marichu Uy Beltran says:

    More power to ALL of YOU!!!

  2. Michael P Camenzuli says:

    Very informative and statistically well supported . Within the Asian market network, the Philippines stands competitive and situated on a firm foundation of human resources in various areas of production, agriculture and technology . As with any nation and economy, it is critical to cultivate and harness unskilled labor as well.
    The cost of isolation and potential to ignore the past importance and contribution of each generation to the next, often leads to internal decay and disparity over time.
    Just my thoughts, happy to share, and job wel done ??