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Why NZ must harness the 'brain gain' - new research

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Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

New Zealand needs to do more to harness the creative, economic potential offered by successful Kiwis returning home after long periods overseas, says a Massey sociologist.

Tracey Lee, a brand strategist who spent 12 years in New York and Shanghai where she worked for Absolut, Diageo, Unilever and The Coca-Cola Company before returning to New Zealand two years ago, says her Masters research highlights a missing key element in New Zealand’s migration policy.

Result? The country is losing out on valuable entrepreneurial skills, and the international experience and networks of dynamic, ambitious Kiwis keen to settle in their Pacific paradise homeland.

Titled Welcome Home? New Zealanders’ Experiences of Return Migration, her thesis combines personal stories behind return migration trends with fascinating insights on the re-integration process from highly skilled Kiwis. From this, she has developed tips to help others contemplating a return in the hope of minimising the hurdles and hitches they might face, and maximising "smooth landings".

While the ‘brain drain’ to more lucrative offshore destinations has captured headlines in the past decade, politicians have paid scant attention to the experiences of those who return - an "unwritten story" Ms Lee was prompted to explore as a returning migrant herself.

"New Zealand has one of the largest diasporas among OECD countries, with estimates of as many as one million New Zealanders living offshore and one in four tertiary educated New Zealand-born adults residing overseas," she says.

"Since 1990, the number of New Zealanders who return has averaged - with little variation - approximately 24,000 per year. This is despite the fact 62,102 left in the twelve months ending June 2012. Where New Zealanders used to represent half of Permanent Long-Term arrivals at the beginning of the 80s, they constituted less than a third in 2012."

She says return migrants have been written off as unambitious life-stylers, with little interest in driving the economy forward. "The fact is, we don’t know enough about those who come home. Information that does exist is generally on new arrivals or those returning from an OE (Overseas Experience). What becomes of the returned? And what of the significant number who are returning from something much more substantive than an OE - what I define as extended OR (Overseas Residence) of five or more years?"

Those she interviewed experienced "re-entry shock" that can take years to navigate. "They are ill-prepared for re-entry challenges, and don’t necessarily have the networks to slip back in to a nation that can feel to them like it is ambivalent to their return," she says.

As one participant put it; "The international experience is prized, but then there’s the contradiction that ‘we’re not really interested in your fancy foreign ways’."

Another struggled with "not being allowed to talk about your overseas [professional] experience, it gets shut down, and it shuts down your willingness to have those conversations and your willingness to share or impart your experience".

Her findings suggest return migrants want to give back, share their learning, and act as pivotal "return scouts" for those who follow. "They’re the ones who are going to either recommend or advise against return migration."

Another reason she says the issue deserves more attention is that New Zealand, like other developed countries, is likely to face a talent shortage in coming years.

She says her study highlights the hopes, passion and desire of many returning Kiwis to be a part of New Zealand’s success. "They have ambition and drive. The fact they do place value on lifestyle and family makes them quintessential New Zealanders, not ‘lifestylers’."

"We need to change the dynamic and consider return migrants as a migrant group, with settlement challenges just as new migrants have," she says.

She says the Integration of Immigrants Programme, run jointly by a team of multidisciplinary researchers from Massey University and the University of Waikato recognised immigrants’ successful integration is vital for the New Zealand’s future. "It’s time we extended that thinking to return migrants," she says.

Ms Lee, who graduated with Distinction from Massey’s Albany campus in April, is sharing her findings and re-entry tips via a website - - as well as with policy makers, business leaders and organisations. BNZ Chief Economist Tony Alexander is also eager to elevate the issue, and Ms Lee will be contributing to his Brain Gain NZ monthly web newsletter. In September she will present at the 2013 International Metropolis Conference in Tampere, Finland, on the topic of International Competition for Talent.

Collective Wisdom for returning New Zealanders:

1. Managing expectations - don’t overly romanticise your thoughts of New Zealand before you return.

2. Prepare in advance - look into the job market and professional networks before you return.

3. Mental preparedness - be patient and take care of each other (if you are in a relationship) when you come home.

4. Be aware of others - don’t irritate your friends and workmates by comparing New Zealand to the world.

5. Stay focused and positive - remember why you came home and find the unique treasures in New Zealand.

6. Coming home doesn’t mean having to go backwards - think about coming back as an opportunity to go forward in life.

7. It takes time and effort - give it a chance. And join in.

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