Turkey losing techies as brain drain quickens

Facing an economic downturn and reduced freedoms, waves of young Turkish professionals are seeking new lives abroad, particularly IT workers, whose skills are highly transferrable and in great demand.

The number of Turks leaving the country increased 63 percent last year, reaching 113,326 in 2017, according to a November report on Turkey’s brain drain by the main opposition Republican People’s Party. The majority of young Turks leaving the country were trained professionals, with around 24,000 engineers moving abroad in 2016.

The head of the Turkish Software Industrialist Association has called on the government to take measures to reverse the trend of software developers emigrating in search of opportunity. 

“Our need for qualified people has been increasing because there is a serious level of migration to foreign countries,” said Ufuk Güneş, the head of the association. “Recently a high number of young software developers have moved to foreign countries and they keep on leaving … This has to be stopped immediately. And the way to do it is to create an environment for an information economy.”

Moving abroad is not something new for Turkey’s computer engineers and software developers, but the trend is increasing and destinations have diversified.

There is much advice online to guide those in the sector on how to make the move, while the popular Turkish social media site Ekşi Sözlük has several topics on the migration of software developers.

“In the next decade, Turkey is to lose all its good informatics professionals. Everyone that leaves the country, creates an environment for those to follow, becomes their references. This will accelerate as numbers keep on increasing,” Twitter user Altan Tanriverdi said last week.

Turkey’s brain drain has become a hot topic and the government announced steps last month aiming to reverse emigration among academics. But academics said economic incentives played only a part in their decision to leave. The same is true for software developers, who find it easier to find a secure job abroad than workers in other professions.

“There is a demand for software developers in Berlin, Amsterdam, and London, and our software developers are really good," said Arzu, a software developer who did not want her real name to be used. "They migrate for more freedom, a better quality of life, and better wages. Around 10 percent of the best software developers have left the country."

Arzu, who recently moved to the Netherlands with her family, said Turkey's IT workers had to grapple with several problems, including the lack of meritocracy. “Someone who is no better than you suddenly gets appointed to a senior level; you lose your motivation,” Arzu said, adding that research grants by the Turkish Scientific and Technological Research Council also lacked objective criteria and were awarded to unqualified people.

Arzu said she and her husband also decided to move abroad for the sake of their children. “I was mainly disturbed by classes on religion that start at fourth grade. It is not enough to make your child exempt from those classes. The child constantly asks, ‘mother, my friend takes the religion class, why don’t I? What am I?’,” she said.

“The education system is also bad. It is not possible to understand what they measure in examinations,” Arzu said.

Bercan Özcan, a 20-something software developer, said many of his friends had moved abroad. “They don’t want to live in Turkey. They don’t want to invest in Turkey. They want to live their life more freely. My gay software developer friends for example left the country because they thought they could not express themselves here,” he said.

Özcan’s software developer cousin moved abroad after he was exposed to tear gas in his house during the 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests. “He moved to Colombia. He knows software, he has a job. He does not want even to think about Turkey and does not read the news. He is very comfortable. The political situation has suffocated people,” Özcan said.  

“People left because of the pessimistic situation the country faces,” said Ersan Özer, the founder of Mediakraft, one of Turkey’s leading online video content providers. “This is not something to the benefit of Turkey. It is already difficult to train people.”

Other countries enjoyed the value added created by Turkey’s human capital, Özer said.

Nevin, a senior manager in the sector, said some people had always left Turkey to seek a better future for themselves.

“What is new is those leaving for their children’s education,” she said. “People are going crazy, even the religion teachers in private schools fill children’s brains with nonsense … Among those who have left, the ones I talk to have no intention of returning.”

Selda moved to Sweden with her husband and two children. She said adapting to a new country was difficult and her children had problems learning the language.

“But if you ask me whether I would prefer to live in here or in Turkey, I prefer here,” she said. “Freedom is good, the Swedish are educated and respectful people. We could not find those things in Turkey.”