David Ellis: Boosting New Zealand's brain gain

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Re-entry culture shock isn't a problem for today's well-informed and skilled returners, writes David Ellis.

Recent indications are that New Zealand's "brain drain" across the Tasman might finally be slowing. Photo / Greg Bowker
Recent indications are that New Zealand's "brain drain" across the Tasman might finally be slowing. Photo / Greg Bowker

Through his Brain Gain newsletter BNZ chief economist Tony Alexander has put the issue of attracting Kiwi expats back to New Zealand on the news agenda. Put simply, enticing highly skilled people back home is good for the economy.

It is high time this issue received the attention it's due, especially given recent indications that New Zealand's "brain drain" across the Tasman might finally be slowing.

But for this trend to gain further traction we need to reframe the way we talk about repatriation experiences to include the positive as well as the negative.

Recent media coverage suggests that the main issue for returning expats, or repats, is re-entry culture shock. It is not. Kiwis coming home already know what they're getting themselves into well before they board the plane at Heathrow, Sydney or New York.

Much of the present discussion is based on interviews with people who returned between five and 10 years ago and whose expectations for their return were formed long before that.

While some of the challenges they faced may still be valid, my own research shows that many things have changed for prospective repats.

Today, skilled expat Kiwis appear to remain quite connected with what's happening in New Zealand, especially if they're thinking about returning. This has been enabled by the increased use of social media and professional networking sites such as LinkedIn, and availability of instant news updates, often on mobile devices read anywhere through customised feeds. The result: prospective repats know the current state of the economy, job market, house prices, and the cost of living in New Zealand.

These are smart people who take proactive steps to gather information to aid their decision to return. Many speak with friends who have returned, former colleagues in New Zealand, and professionals who know the current job market in their field. These days, many managers and recruiters have also worked overseas. People's investigations lead to a highly informed, if unfortunately often negative, view of post-return outcomes.

Accounts of these outcomes can also be biased. It seems people prefer to attribute difficulty finding work solely to being back in New Zealand. They don't always consider the fact there are many elements at play, including that finding work in the current economic climate can be difficult anywhere.

People giving up a job and then trying to find another can struggle, depending on industry, career stage and so on. It's easier to find work if you already have a job. Some repats assume that because things didn't go well for them, things won't go well for their (quite different) returning friends either, and they tell them so. Negativity breeds negativity.

Although the information yielded isn't always pretty, it at least softens the re-entry blow down the track. People know not to expect the earth, to expect to be paid less, to expect to struggle to find comparable work, at least straight away. It could even be the case that the re-entry culture shock we are hearing so much about, if it happens at all, actually happens during these investigations - well in advance of the return.

Once people have the information, they try to reconcile it. Trying to weight these negative work-related expectations alongside positive lifestyle and family-related wishes can be a difficult task, characterised by conflict within relationships, negotiating "get-back-out-of-New Zealand clauses" in case things really go badly, and changing their mind several times before eventually taking the plunge.

One intending repat told me, "It has been a very difficult decision, and it's one I feel that at any point in time I could reverse." Indeed, many people don't take the plunge after all. There is no easy way to make this decision.

But having made it, and despite the pessimistic expectations, many of the Kiwis who return succeed. Perhaps this is re-entry shock, but with a much-needed positive twist - and we need to hear more of these stories.

Addressing situations where returners don't succeed is important. But we also need to know more about the successes, and how they come about.

It's a cycle. More successful returners will tell other expats they are back and happy and how they achieved a successful transition. Maybe then we will start to attract home more of the skilled talent New Zealand is so hungry for.

David Ellis is a Massey University PhD candidate. For his thesis he is analysing interviews with Kiwi repats before and after their return to New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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