MicSem Publications

Micronesian Emigration: The Brain Drain in Palau, Marshalls and the Federated States

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ, with Michael Levin

1986 Migration

The Problem?

Over the past two decades, periodic warnings have been issued about the inevitability of a brain drain in Micronesia. (We will use the term Micronesia here to designate the three new island nations that until recently had been part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific: the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia embracing the states of Yap, Truk, Pohnpei and Kosrae.) These warnings are usually accompanied by illustrative examples of what has occurred in other Pacific islands such as Niue, the Cooks, American Samoa and Micronesia's closest neighbor, Guam. These predictions, often dire in tone, have not only been heard by government planners in the three emerging island states making up Micronesia, they have been incorporated into their development planning. Substantial emigration is anticipated by the island governments and was deliberately provided for in their negotiations with the US government over the political status that will take effect at the conclusion of the present UN trusteeship. Emigration to the US is seen as a necessary provision to permit run-off of excess population, which in most places is still growing at more than 3% yearly, and a safety valve in the event that plans to develop the island economically fail. Future emigration, then, far from being seen as a menace that threatens to deplete the islands' human resources, is counted upon as an essential element in the Micronesian states' strategy for economic and political survival.

The three island nations that, together with the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, once comprised the US-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, have opted for a status that grants them internal political autonomy while guaranteeing annual subsidies from the US in exchange for defense rights during the initial 15-year period of Free Association with the US. Each of the three new island nations — Palau, the Marshalls, and the Federated States of Micronesia — is small, lacks resources, and has a 40-year history of living off US government subsidies. For years Micronesia's main export has been copra, with handicraft and fish bringing in a little more money; only in the past decade has a limited tourist industry pointed to a possible alternative source of income. Overall, however, the islands' economy remain heavily dependent on government salaries bankrolled by US annual subsidies, and the single greatest source of income remains the "school industry" in the form of teachers' salaries. Despite the avid talk of development of primary industries, the unspoken consensus seems to be that the new island nations will have to depend on US aid currently scheduled to decline over the next 15-year period, to buttress their economies for the indefinite future. Even with this aid the three island nations cannot hope to provide enough employment to keep up with demands of a rapidly increasing population. It is for this reason that Micronesian negotiators insisted on a provision in the Compact of Free Association (Title I, art 6) that would allow Micronesians free access to the US to live and work there indefinitely.

Emigration is no easier for Micronesians than it is for any other people. Despite their well-known fondness for travel — a trait that was documented as far back as the mid-19th century when islanders signed on whale ships as deckhands much as they sign on as crew members of freighters today — they always left home with the anticipation of returning. Like other Pacific islanders, Micronesians have always had strong "homing instinct" due to their strong attachments to land and family. Only in very recent years have other forces begun to operate as an effective counterweight to these ties. In this chapter we shall review the rise of these forces, especially those relating to education and employment, since 1970, a period that has been something of a turning point in the development of the islands. We shall also attempt to document the beginnings of emigration from the three island nations of Micronesia. Even more than in other parts of the Pacific there are enormous gaps in the data with which we are forced to work, compelling us to devise alternate means for estimating the numbers we lack as well as to cross-check the reliability of those data that we possess. Although this will necessarily involve some speculation, an exercise that most demographers find unsatisfactory and perhaps even distasteful, the result should be a reasonable estimate of the magnitude of past and present-day emigration as well as a survey of the major factors that have contributed to it.

Early Emigration from Palau

Long before the burgeoning budgets and rapid educational expansion of the Kennedy Administration, the first signs of emigration from Palau were apparent. Already by 1953, only two years after the Trust Territory had been transferred from US Naval to civilian rule, there were 100 Palauans on Guam "in quest of education, high wages and bright lights" with their own Palau Association. (Solenberger 1953:7-8; cited in Connell 1983b:21). Others were already beginning to move out to occupy some of the handful of government jobs available in other districts of the Trust Territory or to continue their schooling beyond intermediate school, the highest level available in Palau at that time. The emigration from Palau, beginning long before any similar movement out of other parts of the Trust Territory with the possible exception of the Northern Marianas, continued unabated until about 1972. Thereafter, the extent of emigration showed an enormous increase almost overnight as new pressures and the educational avenues to escape them began to appear. (Johanek 1984).



Emigration to Other Parts of the TT

Emigration to US and Guam

Total Emigration



Yearly Avg


Yearly Avg



























Sources: Johanek 1984; data from TT Annual Reports 1956-1972.

A simple gate-count tally of figures for out-migration culled from the Trust Territory annual reports shows 1232 Palauans emigrating between 1956 and 1972 (Johanek 1984) (Table 1). Slightly more than 70% of these were recorded as having moved to other parts of the Trust Territory. Among other principal destinations were Yap, an island group close to Palau that offered opportunities for private entrepreneurship, and Saipan, the capital of the Trust Territory after 1960 and the site of many new government jobs. The records showed another 361 Palauans as having moved beyond the TT, presumably to Guam and the US, with the yearly rate dropping sharply during the later 1960s as government budgets expanded and new jobs opened up in the TT. Addition of the unrecorded numbers of Palauans who left their home island prior to 1956, when TT gate count figures first became available, would boost the total emigration beyond 1232. On the other hand, because of the likelihood that some of these early migrants returned to Palau for a few years before leaving again, there is a strong possibility that the 1232 figure represents a partial double count.







+ 10% Adj

+ 15% Adj
1955 7,656 282 29 253 278 291
1956 7,999 314 27 287 316 330
1957 8,563 276 52 224 246 258
1958 8,987 297 30 267 294 307
1959 9,072 326 47 279 307 321
1960 9,320 375 51 324 356 373
1961 9,674 385 64 321 353 369
1962 9,965 348 28 320 352 368
1963 10,280 372 38 334 367 384
1964 10,628 366 51 315 347 362
1965 10,832 385 69 316 348 363
1966 11,225 413 38 375 413 431
1967 11,574 424 62 362 398 416
1968 11,904 349 52 297 327 342
1969 12,291 379 80 299 329 344
1970 12,525 336 77 259 285 298
1971 12,686 326 66 260 286 299
1972 13,025 394 53 341 375 392
1973 12,673          
TOTAL 5,017 6,347 914 5,433 5,977 6,248

Notes: The number of births minus deaths does not necessarily tally with yearly population gains, since they are from different sources.

Sources: Johanek 1984.




10% Adjustment

15% Adjustment
Yearly Avg. 24.5 56.5 72.4
Totals 416 960 1,231

1Formula: [Population of Base Year + (Births – Deaths) – Population of Final Year] = Net Growth.
2Net Growth + 10% for under-reporting
3Net Growth + 15% for under-reporting

Source: Johanek 1982.

As a check on the gate count figures, we can compare the data on births and deaths during the period 1956-1972. The difference between the total number of births and the deaths for the period should represent the natural population increase. This figure can then be compared with the recorded difference in population between 1956 and 1972 to show the net loss of population through emigration (Table 2). Such a computation without any adjustment yields a net loss of 416 persons, most of whom left during the final years of this period (Table 3). This is clearly an undercount when compared not only with the gate count records described above, but also the estimated size of the Palauan community on Guam (not to mention the US). Some adjustment evidently must be made for under-reporting of births and deaths, particularly since 55% of the population of Palau lived out of Koror, the port town and district center, even as late as 1970. An adjustment of 10% to 15% for under-reporting, while low by TT standards, would keep birth and death rates within acceptable limits. Such adjustments would yield an average emigration of between 37 and 52 persons yearly with a total of between 960 and 1231 for the entire period (Table 3). The higher figure is more consistent with the results derived from the gate count method. This kind of computation can prove nothing, of course, but it can afford a check on the plausibility of other information. At the end all we can hope to attain is a measure of probability for our estimates. Hence, if we extrapolated similar rates for the earlier years 1946-1956, a period during which we can be sure at least some emigration occurred, we could add another 300 migrants to give us a total of as many as 1000-1200 ethnic Palauans who moved out of their island group.


YEAR Resident
Projectred Population
at 3.3% Growth Rate
Projected Population
at 3.4% Growth Rate
1955 7,656 7,981 7,988
1956 7,999 8,244 8,260
1957 8,563 8,516 8,541
1958 8,987 8,797 8,831
1959 9,072 9,088 9,132
1960 9,320 9,388 9,442
1961 9,674 9,697 9,763
1962 9,965 10,017 10,095
1963 10,280 10,348 10,438
1964 10,628 10,689 10,793
1965 10,832 11,042 11,160
1966 11,225 11,407 11,539
1967 11,574 11,783 11,932
1968 11,904 12,171 12,337
1969 12,291 12,573 12,757
1970 12,525 12,988 13,191
1971 12,686 13,417 13,639
1972 13,025 13,859 14,103
1973 12,673    

Source: Population figures from TT Annual Reports.

As a final check on the number of Palauan emigrants, we might compare the difference between the resident population and the population that would be projected at normal growth rates (Table 4). A suitable baseline year would seem to be 1954, since the population figures for that year from different sources seem to tally (more of a rarity than might be imagined) at 7726 residents. If the population had grown at 3.3% per annum, a relatively modest growth rate as Micronesia goes, there would have been 13,859 people in 1972. This is an excess of about 830 people over the resident population actually recorded for that year. If the growth rate was 3.4%, the excess would be about 1000 over the 1972 population figure. This would put the size of Palauan emigration at roughly the same level as that derived from the other methods used.

The data from which we are working, incomplete as they are, suggest that about 1000 Palauans (perhaps as few as 800 or as many as 1200) emigrated prior to 1972. Allowing for intermarriage and the usual affinal additions to the Palauan households, and assuming a rather high birth rate, the size of the Palauan overseas community could easily have doubled by the early 1970s, putting it within reach of the 2500 total estimated by McGrath (1971) as well as figures given by Kay (1974) and others. Not all these Palauans would have taken up residence in the US; several hundred were in Guam, 500 in the Northern Marianas, and perhaps another 350 distributed throughout the rest of the Trust Territory (Connell 1983d:17).

Palauans, more than any other group in Micronesia, have always had the reputation of striving to excel and to outdo others. Their society places a strong value on achievement, whatever form it may take. Hence, Palauans have from the first followed the jobs with a special nomadic zeal, searching not just for work but for higher paying and more prestigious jobs. Indeed, the explanations given by Palauans for leaving their island, as tabulated in the TT annual reports, indicate that the overwhelming majority left Palau for economic reasons. Most of the remainder reportedly left to join their families abroad (Johanek 1984). Evidently the "homing instinct" that binds Micronesians to kin and land was offset by other considerations in the case of these early Palauan emigrants. It must not be imagined, however, that their decision to leave Palau represented the simple triumph of Western values and life-style over the traditional, for the competitiveness that is so deeply embedded in Palauan society was undoubtedly itself an inducement to emigration. But herein also lies the difference between Palau and the other island groups of Micronesia, for nowhere else is there the same emphasis on competitiveness and personal achievement (Alkire 1977:29ff). If emigration can be seen as a strategy through which Palauans can pursue traditional values, the same cannot be said for the rest of Micronesia. This is probably why no other island group in the area shows evidence of emigration on anything like the Palauan scale.






1973 12,673 433 54 379

396 76 320

370 85 285

401 80 321
1977 12,911 354 66 288

282 54 228

306 66 240
1980 12,172 301 98 203
1981 12,313 282 78 204
1982 12,514 315 91 224
1983 12,718 295 84 211
1984 12,925      
TOTAL   3,735 832 2,903

Source: Johanek 1984; but figures on births and deaths after 1972 are corrected with recent data from Republic of Palau Planning Office.

Since 1972 the outflow of Palauan emigrants has become a virtual torrent. Although there are no gate count records cited in TT annual reports for this period, the other methods that have been used above can give us a reasonably accurate estimate of the magnitude of this emigration. As Table 5 shows, the difference between all the recorded births and deaths in Palau during the years 1973-1984 is a net gain of 2903 despite the fact that Palau's resident population had only grown by 250 at the end of this period. Hence, even without making adjustments for under-reporting, there are about 2650 missing Palauans from this period: presumably emigrants to the US, Guam and other places. This figure assumes a natural growth rate of slightly less than 2% a year, much lower than the recent rates for the rest of Micronesia. Even with allowance made for the decrease in percentage of women of child-bearing age that was a consequence of emigration during previous years, this growth rate is a conservative one. It should also be noted that the population figures between 1981 and 1984, the only years showing a growth in resident population, are merely estimates. If the upward swing in population that these figures show during the past few years is unfounded — and recent estimates issued by the Palau Government assume that they are unfounded — then the number of missing Palauans would stand at well over 3000. In 1980 Census, 2426 Palauans living outside of Palau — an undercount.

The recent outflow of Palauans, then, has grown to great proportions: about 240 emigrants each year. This estimate seems to be confirmed by airline travel records showing an average yearly net departure of 254 people from Palau (Johanek 1984). Hence, the pattern of migration that was established in Palau as early as the 1940s has intensified greatly in recent years. Whereas there were once about 50 to 60 emigrants from Palau each year, there are now four to five times that number.

The Micronesian Education Explosion

It has only been since the early 1970s that large numbers of other Micronesians have begun moving back and forth across the Pacific. This movement has been triggered by the education explosion whose reverberations are still being felt throughout Micronesia. Its impact in Truk has been well documented (Hezel 1979 & 1985), although no studies have been done of its effect on other parts of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) or the Marshalls.

The educational build-up throughout Micronesia began in the early 1960s with the construction of new elementary and secondary school buildings, the recruitment of American teachers, and the commitment of a much larger share of the TT's growing budgets to education and health services. By the end of that decade high school enrollments everywhere in Micronesia had soared. In Truk, perhaps the most striking example of educational expansion, the high school enrollment doubled in a single year. During the four years between 1970 and 1974 the Truk school system produced more high school graduates than were turned out during the 25 years of American administration up to that time, and the number of graduates began doubling every four years thereafter (Hezel 1979). The expansion in other parts of Micronesia was not nearly as dramatic, but it was nonetheless real. By the mid-1960s each of the states (then called districts) had its own full high school, and some had private high schools besides. In 1970 Palau was turning out 180 high school graduates yearly, the Marshalls was producing about 160, and the FSM was turning out another 360 (Table 6). In all, roughly 700 high school graduates were being fed into the Labor Force each year. Some further expansion on the high school level occurred during the 1970s: Pohnpei's yearly output almost tripled, Kosrae's and Truk's doubled, and the other places showed more moderate increases. By the end of the last decade there were slightly more than 1000 high school students finishing school each year, a figure that remains about the same today.


Year Truk Pohnpei Kosrae Yap Palau Marshalls
1970 133 75 40 110 180 160
1973 159 88 57 119 205 240
1976 334 100 75 101 213 177
1979 389 210 87 110 224 260
1982 240 170 75 125 220 220

Note: Except for 1976, these figures represent an estimate of graduates on the basis of the number of 12th grade students at the beginning of school year.

Sources: TT Education Department Enrollment Statistics for 1972- 73; TT Annual Reports for 1970, 1976 and 1979; FSM Employment Development and Training Plan (1982).

The secondary school expansion had obvious effects on the composition of the Labor Force, but its greater significance may have been to precipitate the massive surge into college that began during the early 1970s. As the number of high school graduates multiplied everywhere in Micronesia, there was a growing interest in continuing studies in college abroad — partly for the adventure of being away from home and partly for the good-paying job that a degree would surely bring. During the 1960s no more than a handful of high school graduates went on to college, usually through scholarships or other forms of government financial assistance. By 1970 the number of Micronesians away in college had grown to over 400 (Table 7). Although this figure was double that of 1966, it still meant that only one out of every seven high school graduates was able to go to college. Moreover, Palauans were disproportionately represented among Micronesian college students; they made up 40% of the number of college-bound in Micronesia, even though Palau comprised only 14% of the total population of Micronesia. The Trust Territory government and the local district legislatures had just about exhausted their ability to provide increasing amounts of scholarship and college loan funds to accommodate the growing number of students who wished to attend college when the US Federal government came to the rescue. As of late 1972 Micronesians were formally declared eligible for US Federal education grants aimed at enabling the economically and socially "disadvantaged" to attend college. Within a year of this ruling, large numbers of those in the swelling 12th grade classrooms throughout Micronesia were filling out forms for educational grants, writing away to a plethora of small community colleges more than happy to fill empty classroom seats and trying to scrape together enough money for their plane fare to the college of their choice. The main destination of those few Micronesians who had been fortunate enough to get to college before that time was Guam, where most lived in a ramshackle dormitory known as "TT Scholarship Hall" while attending the college a few hundred yards away. Now Micronesians began heading in large numbers for the nooks and crannies of Middle America to begin their college studies. The pursuit of a college education was suddenly no longer contingent on whether a young person received a scholarship, or on the academic ability shown in high school. A college education was no longer the privilege of the intellectually gifted; it had suddenly become a universal right.


Year Truk Pohnpei Kosrae Yap Palau Marshalls
1962 13 5

14 49 15
1966 38 43

14 85 34
1970 49 110

81 193 56
1974 237 218

141 309 157
1979 636 208 171 159 528 357
1985 527 519 165 179 441 178

Notes: Figures do not include Micronesians enrolled in College of Micronesia extension program and other extension programs. Figures for Pohnpei during early years include Kosraeans as well, since Kosrae was a part of Pohnpei District until 1977.

Sources: TT Annual Reports 1962-1974; TT Education Department list of Micronesians in college for 1979 and 1985.

The figures in Table 7 show the escalation in the number of college-bound following 1972. Again, nowhere was this more dramatically felt than in Truk, where the number of young people in college jumped from 49 in 1970 to over 600 in 1979. Elsewhere the patterns of growth varied from place to place. The number of Pohnpeians in college doubled between 1970 and 1974, and it has doubled again since 1979. The number of Kosraeans and Yapese attending college also doubled prior to 1979, but the growth rate has been much slower since then. College attendance in the Marshalls grew five-fold in the past decade, although it has dropped considerably thereafter (at least if government records are accurate). In Palau, understandably enough, the rate of increase in the college student population was more modest, but this was largely due to the relatively high rate of college attendance among Palauans during the 1960s. Notwithstanding the fact that they were well ahead of other places in educational attainment before the college boom in the 1970s, the number of college students from Palau doubled during the decade.

The surge to college reached its height in 1977 and 1978 when about 2400 Micronesians were away studying, most of them in the US mainland or Hawaii (Harlan 1977:49). By that time about 35% of all high school graduates from the Marshalls, 50% of those from FSM, and 75% of Palau graduates were attending college. Overall, about half of the young men and women graduating from high school — and their number had grown greatly by this time — were continuing their studies in college. Needless to say, this posed considerable problems for economic planners and the politicians for whom they worked. What could be done to enable the new nations, then just beginning to exercise self-government, to meet the growing expectations of the college educated, who were then just beginning to return to their home islands in real numbers?

New Demands on a Limited Economy

Ironically, just as the early large waves of college-bound Micronesians were being washed upon the shores of the US, yearly US allocations to the Trust Territory for operational expenses were close to reaching a plateau (Table 8). At the height of the "diploma disease" that had infected the islands, a cut-back in the growth of jobs first appeared on the horizon. Micronesian leaders were sitting down with UN advisors to work out a development plan that would reduce the size and cost of the TT government, redirect the economy towards the private sector, and take some initial steps towards the self-reliance that has always been the avowed goal of Micronesian political leaders. Although the plans were drawn up and approved, very little was done to implement them, partly because of the fear of the social upheaval that a cutback in government employment would bring on. Continual expansion of the TT government had been the norm since the Kennedy years and a reversal of this expansion would have been an unpalatable move just as the education explosion, itself a product of these development policies, had reached its peak. While the regular US subsidy was approaching its upper limit, other sources of US funds guaranteed further expansion of government during the 1970s. Capital Improvement funds were earmarked for the construction of roads, airports, docks and other infrastructural development projects; and US Federal programs were bringing millions of dollars and hundreds of new jobs to Micronesia during this period (Table 8).


Year Yearly
1955 5.0 0.0 0.0 5.0
1956 5.0 0.0 0.0 5.0
1957 4.8 0.0 0.0 4.8
1958 6.2 0.0 0.0 6.2
1959 4.9 0.0 0.0 4.9
1960 5.2 0.0 0.0 5.2
1961 5.9 0.0 0.0 5.9
1962 6.1 0.0 0.0 6.1
1963 15.0 0.0 2.0 17.0
1964 15.0 0.0 3.0 18.0
1965 17.5 0.0 4.0 21.5
1966 17.4 0.0 4.5 21.9
1967 19.2 0.0 6.0 25.2
1968 20.2 0.0 6.1 26.3
1969 22.4 7.6 6.2 36.2
1970 27.5 20.6 6.5 54.6
1971 34.6 25.3 7.4 67.3
1972 39.3 20.7 8.1 68.1
1973 43.7 16.3 9.4 69.4
1974 48.2 10.2 11.1 69.5
1975 55.0 14.8 11.9 81.7
1976 75.1 14.3 11.5 100.9
1977 74.7 14.4 25.1 114.2
1978 70.9 30.7 31.0 132.6
1979 60.3 54.3 24.1 138.7
1980 57.1 41.9 25.5 124.5
1981 73.8 20.7 25.5 120.0
1982 96.6 2.0 21.3 119.9
1983 76.6 18.4 20.0 115.0
1984 70.3 31.4 22.5 124.2

Sources: Micronesian Seminar, 1984, 40; TT Annual Reports 1983 and 1984.

Thanks to these supplementary sources of funding, the Trust Territory government was able to expand the number of jobs in the public sector — and thus induce a rise in employment in the private service sector, which is almost totally dependent on government spending — right to the very end of the decade (Table 9). While Palau, the Marshall Islands and two of the states of FSM (Pohnpei and Kosrae) showed the greatest increase in jobs between 1973 and 1976, Yap and Truk marked an even greater increase during the three-year period following 1976 as a result of the proliferation of Federal Program-funded positions. Truk and Yap both experienced a sharp decline in the number of jobs immediately afterwards when most of the Federal programs were withdrawn from Micronesia. Something similar probably happened elsewhere, although there is no data available for other islands since 1979. In all, the total number of jobs in FSM more than doubled from 1970 to 1979, while in Palau and the Marshalls employment grew by an additional half to two-thirds. Even so, however, the percent of the total Labor Force employed at the end of the decade was almost unchanged (Table 10). The Marshalls registered virtually no difference, while Palau's rate grew by 7% only because its population remained stable throughout this period due to heavy emigration. The FSM, which showed the greatest growth in the number of jobs, registered an increase of 7%. This was the best the island nations could do, even under rather favorable economic conditions, in their race against their expanding populations and the educational upheaval that was occurring at that time.


  Truk Pohnpei Kosrae Yap Palau Marshalls
1970 1,832 1,847 952 1,893 2,796
1973 2,515 1,939 365 1,126 2,213 2,889
1976 3,743 3,239 717 1,421 3,119 4,079
1979 5,599 3,442 510 2,027 3,228 3,977
1982 3,782 3,913 682 1,484 N/A N/A
1985 4,054 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A

Sources: TT Annual Report 1981; FSM Yearbook of Statistics (1981); FSM Employment Development and Training Plan (1981); Marshall Island Statistical Abstract (1985).


  1972 1980
Marshalls 24% 25%
Palau 32% 39%
FSM 16% 22%
Pohnpei & Kosrae 18% 24% (for each)
Truk 13% 19%
Yap 27% 27%

Sources: Connell, Country Report on FSM (1983), 10; 1980 Trust Territory Census.

Statistics on the percentage of employment among the Labor Force, however, are of limited usefulness in dealing with a society that has a large semi-subsistence economy. There are obvious difficulties in determining how many of the Labor Force are actually looking for salaried employment. One measure, although admittedly an inadequate one, is the extent to which urbanization is occurring. As Table 11 indicates, the rate of in-migration into town during the 1970s has been pronounced in Palau, where villagers have been streaming into Koror, its port town, at a rate only slightly slower than the rate of emigration out of Palau. In other words, the villagers are emptying into Koror, which in turn is sending its excess population abroad. In its percentage of urbanization, the Marshalls, with its two towns of Ebeye and Majuro, approaches that of Palau, although the rate of increase has slowed down considerably in the last decade. Truk and Pohnpei, the only states in the FSM where there are rather clearly defined urban areas, show an intermediate rate of growth. Although it is not easy to translate this into hard data on employment and unemployment, we can be reasonably sure that the demand for salaried jobs is in direct correlation with the degree of urbanization in an island group. Hence, we must assume that during the 1970s a significantly greater part of the Labor Force was eager to enter the wage economy.








Palau 28.9% 39.5% 43.1% 45.3% 60.5% 62.8%
Truk 14.3% 14.1% 16.6% 17.3% 30.3% 27.5%
Pohnpei 8.9% 7.6% 10.7% 16.6% 24.9% 24.2%
Marshalls 25.1% 34.7% 43.0% 56.5% 53.8% 59.7%

Sources: Micronesian Seminar 1984, 8; data taken from TT Annual Reports.

Another indicator of the percent of the Labor Force that is actively looking for jobs is the educational attainments of those entering the Labor Force. We can assume that almost all males and a fair number of females among high school graduates are hoping to find a paying full-time job. Naturally, this is even more true of those who have gone away to college. Although these young people could in theory return to the semi-subsistence rural economy to live off the bounty of land and sea, while obtaining whatever relatively small amounts of cash they might need from copra production and the like, very few of them show a real preference for this sort of life. In Palau there were about 1800 high school graduates produced between 1970 and 1979, while the same period saw the addition of about 1200 jobs (Table 9). The numbers of both new jobs and new graduates in the Marshalls are nearly identical with those in Palau during this time. With the high degree of urbanization in both places, we can suppose that the majority of graduates remained in town and became more than just nominal members of the Labor Force. According to the 1980 Trust Territory Census, 34% of all persons over the age of 25 in Palau had a high school diploma. This in itself put enormous pressure on the government to produce jobs for the recent graduates entering the labor market despite the avowed intention of leaders to cut back the size of government, as the former President of Palau once admitted in an interview (Connell 1983d:12). Only in the FSM did the number of new jobs during the 1970s exceed the number of young people who graduated from high school during the same years. Statistics show the addition of 6900 jobs, while about 2500 new graduates were turned out. The surplus of jobs left FSM in a better position to absorb these additions to its Labor Force, while FSM's relatively low urbanization rate made it easier for those who did not find salaried employment to accept the alternative of life in the village semi-subsistence economy.

Graduates of an earlier era had the luxury of returning to their village and finding employment as teachers in the elementary school. According to a study of Truk High School graduates (Elimo et al 1977), 70% of the graduates of 1966 were both living in their village and working for a salary, an optimal arrangement in the minds of most Trukese. Of the Truk High School graduates six years later, however, only 45% were back on their home islands after completion of school. The few jobs that were available in the villages had long since been filled, and graduates were forced to move to Moen, the state capital, to find full-time employment. The inevitable result was a drift of graduates into the urban centers where jobs might be found.

The woefully stagnant state of the village economy and its consequences on residence patterns can be illustrated by a look at two small communities in different parts of FSM. The first is the island of Paata, a municipality at the extreme western side of Truk lagoon with a population of about 700. In 1973 there were only 12 high school graduates from Paata, all of them employed and ten of them living on or near their home island (Hezel 1985:8). By 1978 the number of graduates had tripled to 36, with 13 of them employed, all but two of them working either in the village school or as health aides. Another eight lived on their island unemployed. In 1984 the number of Paata graduates had risen to 70, with 39 of them living on their own island. Only 17 of these were employed, and the modest increase of four jobs was due to the opening of a school annex and the funding of a new pre-elementary school program. Overall, then, the number of Paata high school graduates had multiplied from 12 to 70, while the number of these working for a salary on that island rose from ten to only 17, with all but two employed in education. The spill-over of Paata youth to Moen totaled 13 by 1984; it would no doubt have been much higher but for the fact that no jobs were to be found on Moen either by this time.

Eauripik, a tiny coral island in Yap State far from the commercial center and capital, furnishes another example of the economic limits of the rural economy in Micronesia. Although the male population has a remarkable success rate in education — 52 out of 60 young men have graduated from high school — the only salaried positions on the island are two teachers and a health aide (Levin 1982). Since 1950 the graduates have begun leaving their island to take up residence where job opportunities are more abundant; only 14 of the high school graduates now live on Eauripik. All but a few of the remainder were dispersed throughout the FSM, most of them employed as nurses or health aides, mechanics, sailors or radio operators. Only three had left the area altogether, one to work on Tinian in the Northern Marianas as a cowboy and another two to join the US Navy in California.

Given the economic sluggishness of the villages, whether on high islands or coral atolls, graduates throughout the 1970s were faced with the choice of either returning to the bosom of their family and friends where they could utilize local resources to help support themselves or of striking out for the town in search of a job. Everywhere in the FSM there is strong evidence that in the face of such a choice most graduates would willingly move to town and take a job. These circumstances, of course, were responsible for much of the internal migration within the islands and the growing urbanization during the past decade. As jobs became unavailable to graduates even in the towns since the late 1970s, however, Trukese showed a tendency to return to their villages to fish and work on the land rather than remain in town unemployed (Hezel 1979). While this may have been largely true also of Pohnpei, Kosrae and at least Yap proper (in contrast to the outer islands), this was certainly not the case in Palau where there has been no perceptible back-migration to the villages. Instead, the young who could not find jobs appear to have left Palau altogether. In the Marshalls, on the other hand, high school graduates who cannot find employment in the towns seem to return to their home island. Such at least may be inferred from population data in the 1980 Census, which shows no more than normal growth rates for the towns of Ebeye and Majuro.

After the Boom Years

By the end of the 1970s, with the island economies groaning under the weight of the great influx of educated young Micronesians in the job market, the period of retrenchment began in earnest. Following self-government in the three Micronesian entities in 1978, strict budget ceilings were imposed on the annual US grants and several Federal Programs that had formerly employed hundreds of Micronesians were terminated in order to prepare the new nations for the budgetary constraints of Free Association. Although funding for Capital Improvement Projects actually increased, this money was spent on new construction and there were relatively few Micronesians who were direct beneficiaries, least of all the high school graduates and returning college students who aspired to white-collar employment.

Employment figures for 1982 reflect the cutback in US funding. Of the states in the FSM, Truk and Yap suffered the severest drops in employment with a loss of 32% and 27% respectively of their 1979 level jobs (Table 9). Kosrae showed a gain over the 1979 figure, but was still below its employment peak in 1976. Only in Pohnpei was there a continuing growth in employment, largely due to the transfer of the FSM capital to that island in the late 1970s. Overall, the FSM experienced a loss of more than 1700 jobs during the period 1979-1982, while about 1800 recent graduates, half of them with some college education, entered the Labor Force. This was very bad news for the latest crop of school finishers, who had expected that their diploma would entitle them to a salary as it had for so many before them. In fact, however, only 35% of the most recent Trukese graduates had managed to find steady employment by the time that a 1984 survey was conducted (Hezel 1985). This is in contrast to the 51% employment rate among the 1972-1977 graduates that was recorded in a 1978 survey (Hezel 1979).

Although the Marshalls registered a slight increase in jobs (by 25) in 1982, it faced much the same problem as the FSM. The figures cited by Connell (1983c:9), which differ from those given in Table 9, show a gain of 300 jobs between 1979 and 1982 for an increase of 100 jobs each year. Even granted the accuracy of these figures, the situation was still little better than in the FSM, for entering the Labor Force each year were 500 young Marshallese, 200 of them with a high school diploma and half of these with two or more years of college. There is no data available on the 1982 employment level in Palau, but the number of jobs could only have risen slightly, if at all. The answer to this impasse may have once been to pad the government payrolls and create new jobs, but such measures were now impossible with the reduced budgets.

The new crop of graduates and their parents were quick to grasp the situation. The euphoria that was everywhere during the 1970s began to dissipate as students and their parents came to realize that employment was no longer the sure reward of 12 years of schooling. It was bad enough that so many of the high school graduates were unemployed, but even worse when some of the returnees from college could not find jobs and had to retreat to their villages to fish and pound breadfruit. For most Micronesian parents schooling had represented an investment that would pay generous dividends when their children qualified for a salaried job and provided security for them. Although there were other gains to be had from education, of course, this was seen as dominant one, particularly by those people who themselves had never gone to school. The result was a fall-off in high school enrollments, the first decline of any real duration since the inception of the American education system in Micronesia in the late 1940s. Almost everywhere in Micronesia the numbers of young people graduating from high school dropped, as Table 6 indicates. By 1982 a 12% fall-off in the number of graduates had occurred.

The tide of young Micronesians going off to college was also beginning to ebb at about this time. In Truk, where a few years earlier roughly 65% of the newest crop of high school graduates were leaving for college, now only 44% were college-bound (Hezel 1985). A recent survey of Micronesians studying in college abroad shows that their number has dropped considerably from the high of 2400 in college in 1978. The number of college-bound in the Marshalls fell most sharply, by about half, between 1979 and 1985. Palau also showed a decrease, as did Truk and Kosrae. Only in Pohnpei and Yap did college attendance continue to rise. The reason for the fall-off in numbers may be partly the growing disillusionment — some would say a growing sense of realism — about future job prospects, but there are more immediate financial concerns that help explain it. Rising costs of air travel and college tuition are putting college beyond the means of many young people, even with the Federal assistance that Micronesian students now receive and will be eligible to receive through the first three years after the implementation of the Compact of Free Association. If college is seen by many as an investment, then the rising premiums together with the growing uncertainty about the dividends have discouraged many from risking their money on a college venture.



  Truk Pohnpei Kosrae Yap Palau Marshalls
US 100 (42) 110 (50)

57 (40) 14 4(47) 57 (36)
Guam 62 (26) 51 (23)

32 (23) 116 (37) 22 (14)
CCM-MOC 56 (24) 45 (21)

46 (33) 28 (9) 71 (45)
Other 19 (8) 12 (6)

6 (4) 21 (7) 7 (4)
TOTAL 237 218   141 309 157


  Truk Pohnpei Kosrae Yap Palau Marshalls
US 199 (38) 183 (35) 33 (20)  60 (33) 205 (46) 91(51)
Guam 249 (47) 117 (23) 9* (5)  48 (27) 127 (29)  2 (1)
CCM-MOC 79 (15) 219 (42) 123 (75)  71 (40) 109 (25)  85 (48)
TOTAL 527 519 165 179 441 178

*This figure does not include Kosraeans attending University of Guam.

Notes: Numbers in parentheses indicate percentage of students in each location.  Figures for Pohnpei in 1974 include Kosraeans as well.

Sources: TT Annual Report 1984; TT Post-Secondary Student Survey 1984-1985.

There are other indications that the escalating expenses of a college education are having an impact on the education picture in Micronesia. Just as the early 1970s saw a shift of young Micronesians away from Guam towards Hawaiian and mainland US schools, the early 1980s has witnessed a swing back to colleges closer at hand. Table 12 compares the destination of college-bound Micronesians in 1974 with the location of students who were abroad in 1985. It shows a pronounced movement in recent years away from more distant sites in the US, with an increasing percentage of college students enrolled at either the Community College of Micronesia (CCM) on Pohnpei or the Micronesian Occupational College (MOC) in Palau. Almost 700 students are now enrolled at MOC and CCM, nearly as many as the number of Micronesians studying in the US. The percentage of Micronesian college students attending school in the US has dropped from 44% to 38%, despite the large increase in absolute numbers. Only Palau and the Marshalls fail to show a significant shift away from US colleges, although each probably for a different reason. The Marshalls is almost as close to Hawaii in terms of travel costs as it is to Pohnpei, and a flight to Hawaii is much cheaper than the airfare to Guam. Hence, the Marshalls' strongest links are with Hawaii in education as in everything else. As for Palau, its youth continue to use college in the US as a staging area for long-term or permanent emigration. Although travel is expensive, there are well-established Palauan enclaves in many parts of the US as a result of earlier emigration; this affords the Palauan college student moral support and sometimes lodging and financial help besides.

With the expansion of CCM and MOC, separate facilities that together with a small nursing school comprise the College of Micronesia, an extension program has been established in each of the states of FSM and Palau and the Marshalls. Several hundred Micronesians are also enrolled in the College of Micronesia extension programs, with still others registered in additional programs run by such institutions as the University of Guam, East Oregon State College, and San Jose State College. Although the extension programs are becoming an increasingly prominent part of the educational landscape all of the islands, they are excluded from our data because they serve an altogether different clientele. Those enrolled in the extension programs are not recent high school graduates just on the verge of entering the Labor Force, but almost entirely government employees, largely teachers, who are working for a diploma to upgrade their credentials. Thus, the extension programs do not serve as a conduit for students into the ranks of the employed, but rather as a device for permitting veteran employees to retain their positions.

Emigration Today and Tomorrow

One of the most celebrated side-effects of schooling may be to engender the hope for a regular income and the other things that go to make up the "good life," yet the state of the economy in Micronesia guarantees that these hopes will be dashed for the majority of school-leavers today. Although over 600 young graduates, to say nothing of the others without a high school education, are entering the Labor Force in FSM each year, there are a mere handful of jobs to be parceled out to the newcomers. The Marshalls, as we have seen, is in no better shape. Over 200 graduates are counted among the 500 who enter the job market yearly to compete for fewer than 100 salaried jobs — and these jobs include such marginal occupations as driving a taxi or doing yard work. Palau has solved the problem of the job shortage by sending off more than 200 of its people each year to make their fortune elsewhere. Micronesians are quick to accommodate to new situations and they have made adjustments to better cope with the scarcity of jobs in recent years. The decline in the school enrollments and in the numbers of the college-bound can be seen as one response to this situation. Another is the relative ease and grace with which most of the unemployed school-leavers have settled back into their rural communities and taken up the customary routine. Clearly there are other important motivating forces in their lives besides a place on the payroll.

Nonetheless, employment is bound to be a continuing concern for young Micronesians, particularly those who advance through high school or college, and there is little reason to expect any radical changes in the extent or nature of the educational system that inevitably nurtures such expectations. At present, a small but significant number of young men and women have begun looking beyond their islands for employment, even at the cost of leaving land and kin. In a recent survey of all Trukese high school graduates, 242 were found to be settled outside of Truk (Hezel 1985). This represents 9% of the 2835 graduates not in studies, double the percentage living abroad identified in a similar study six years earlier (Hezel 1979). Nearly half of these are living in Pohnpei or elsewhere in the FSM, most of them either employed by the FSM Government or with spouses who work for the government. They cannot be considered a part of the brain drain in any sense, for they remain with the government employment system that binds Truk to other parts of Micronesia. The others include 38 living on Saipan, many of them working in the private sector, 22 on Guam, 69 in the US, and eight others living in such distant places as Canada, Japan, Fiji, Nauru and Switzerland. If we subtract those working in government or other official positions, we are left with 115 Trukese who can be regarded as genuine emigrants, many of whom originally left to attend college and have lived abroad for as long as ten or 12 years. In the last year or two a number of others have left for Tinian or Saipan to look for work in the garment factories or on the fishing boats. If we take these into account and add in those who are not high school graduates, we could have a total of 200-250 Trukese emigrants. That estimate would represent merely 0.5% of the total Trukese population, hardly a cause for alarm if it were not for the fact that this trickle has begun only within the last six to eight years.


Place No. by Ethnic
No. by
No. by 

542 508

378 433

110 1,239

371 687
Yapese     (161)
Outer Island     (526)
Marshalls 474 1,197 511
Palau 692 1,003 1,027

Note: Data by ethnic group does not give number or breakdown of residents in FSM, Yapese are broken down by language spoken into Yapese and Ulithian-Woleians (Outer islanders).

Sources: US Bureau of Census, 1980; Census data cited in Levin 1984.

Although we lack the data to make any but the wildest guesses about the extent of overall emigration from the other states of FSM, 1980 US Census statistics furnish us with the means of estimating the number of Micronesians who are living in the US (Levin 1984). The census tables on Pacific islanders in the US, based on sample tabulations, give a count of Micronesians on the basis of general ethnicity, birthplace and language spoken at home (Table 13). According to the breakdown by birthplace and the number of language spoken, the number of Trukese living in the US is put at a little more than 500, including the 400 studying in college at the time. The number of Pohnpeians enumerated under these two heading averaged roughly 400, with perhaps half of these students. Kosrae had about 100 persons residing in the US at the time of the census (if we discount the impossibly high figure of 1,239 Kosraean language speakers as an error), and all but a handful of these would have been attending college. The count of Yapese residing in the US is more problematic, since there are 371 listed by birthplace and 687 by language spoken. Subtracting the 100 or so students among them, we are left with a group of residents that may number between 250 and 550. The great majority of these would seem to be outer island Yapese, according to the language sub-classification given in the census data. In summary, then, the US Census figures suggest a total FSM emigration (whether short-term or permanent) of approximately 600-900 non-students: 100 Trukese, 200 Pohnpeians, no more than 50 Kosraeans, and 250-550 Yapese.

At first sight the Marshallese figures are more confusing because of the discrepancy between the large number listed by birthplace (1197) and the more plausible figures assigned by ethnicity (474) and language spoken (511). Inasmuch as the high figure for birthplace is probably due to the number of Caucasian dependents born on Kwajalein to American families employed there at the time, we can disregard the high figure and assume that the number of Marshallese living in the US is about 500. Allowing for a student population of about 300 at that time, we can estimate the size of the emigrant population in the US at perhaps 200. There is already a medium-sized Marshallese community in Costa Mesa, California, and one or two smaller settlements in the making.

The Palauan population in the US is enumerated at slightly more than 1000, according to the figures on birthplace and language spoken. Nearly 300 of these were college students. The remaining 700 may be an undercount, perhaps representing only half the actual size of the Palauan population in the US, if we judge from the heavy emigration during the 1970s. Extrapolations from voter counts during a 1983 plebiscite put the Palauan population in the US at between 1000 and 1500 (Schwalbenberg 1984). In addition to the Palauans living in the US, there are at least 1500 and probably closer to 2000 residing on Guam, with another 1000 distributed throughout Micronesia.

However imprecise our estimates of the magnitude of emigration may be, one conclusion is inescapable: the brain drain has begun. Aside from the 4000-5000 Palauans who have left their island home over the course of the last 40 years, a relatively small number of Micronesians from other island groups have begun in recent years take up residence in the US, Guam and the Marianas. Their number is uncertain: perhaps as many as 1500 from all parts of the FSM and another 200 from the Marshalls. In all likelihood, few of these packed their bags and departed with the intention of remaining away until death or disaster befell them. If the Truk emigrants described in the survey are typical, most originally left to attend school or possibly for some other reason, remaining afterwards when a steady job was found or when they could not get together the money for their return plane ticket. In a sense, many of them simply drifted into a prolonged stay abroad. Many claim they will return to their home island sometime in the future, but for a good number this will be a relatively short visit to see friends and family before returning to the US.

There is every reason to believe that the trickle of emigrants will increase considerably in the near future. With free migration into the US and its territories permitted under the Compact of Free Association, Micronesians who are out of school will no longer be obliged to dodge US Immigration officials as they must today. Unless the island nations of Micronesia are somehow able to turn around their economies and create hundreds of new jobs without the assistance of higher levels of US aid, there is a good chance that more young people will elect to leave home and pursue jobs, wherever they are to be found. That possibility is envisioned and welcomed by Micronesian leaders, who can find no workable solution for the chronic lack of employment in their islands. It was also foreseen by the authors of the Solomon Report in 1963 when they predicted that "in the long run … certain inflexible economic limitations of the area and the increasing population pressure must eventually compel substantial emigration of Micronesians." (Solomon 1963; cited in Schwalbenberg 1981). It does not seem that they will be proven wrong.


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