Fixing the country's skills shortage shouldn't rely just on luring people back home or enticing migrants to move here, says Sue Watson, the chief executive of people networking firm Kea New Zealand.

Companies should tap talented Kiwis wherever they are to help them grow their businesses.

Watson says the organisation's staff are often told by clients that they are finding it hard to attract the people they need.

Watson says the skills shortages she and her colleagues are hearing about cover technology, biotech, health technology and electronics.

Advertisement

"These are big companies that are finding it hard to attract skilled staff," she says. "These companies are in the top 100 firms with high-value exports. They are not just after expat Kiwis but skilled migrants who have previously worked in New Zealand and who are keen to return."

Watson says people are needed in Christchurch, not just to help with rebuilding work but also to join high - profile firms with orders to fill and who have not been affected by the quakes.

"We know of some high-productivity firms in Christchurch and they are struggling - their issue is not the earthquake, they are still able to go to market. But they have severe skills shortages - it is quite chronic."

Watson says one thing that is making expats in Australia think twice about moving back home is that they tend to be paid 30 per cent more than New Zealand firms. "The big issue now is Australia and our consistent lagging behind them," she says. "The pay gap that is widening between us. I think the latest stats are that Australian average incomes are 30 per cent higher than New Zealand.

"I guess if you are in the Northern Hemisphere then Australia is near enough to home. My thoughts are that being a few hours' flight away from New Zealand is close enough.

"Perhaps they can't afford to live in New Zealand, but being in Australia they can at least make frequent trips home to see family."

Watson says if Kiwi firms can't attract people to live and work here, perhaps expats could work for Kiwi firms while living abroad - something she says can help companies develop their export markets.

"Firms can use Kiwis where they are," Watson says. "For export-focused SMEs in New Zealand, which is where we have decided we can deliver the most bang for our buck, Kiwis living offshore are a huge potential resource for those companies and the economy.

"For example, these expats could be marketing managers who can help Kiwi firms obtain distribution deals. They may have the connections, the capability and the capital to help local companies succeed abroad.

"One example is that there has been quite a bit of talk around the ecosystem and high-potential growth companies needing directors based offshore.

"Well, having Kiwis offshore, because they are culturally appropriate - if you like - are already in the market, so they have the information, they have the connections and the networks to help a company grow."

Watson says firms here should keep engaged and connected with Kiwis overseas. "I think if we can nurture the connection we can have a much better chance of being able to put a compelling pitch to expats around opportunities that might appeal to them."

Making connections is something Kea is actively working on overseas and it is holding sessions to connect with expats and their friends.

"We are running targeted recruitment events abroad and asking our Kiwi contacts to invite friends along to take part," Watson says.

"What exporters can offer people representing them abroad is payment in their local currency and, if they are able to grow the business, some sort of shareholding or profit share arrangement may be available.

"We know there are Kiwis who are interested in investing back into the productive economy in New Zealand, particularly in firms that have a focus on exporting.

"Once people invest in a company or take an equity share, that gives them a vested interest, and so can work for that company offshore or when they return home, perhaps as a director. Investment is a potential recruitment pipeline."

Watson says a substantial part of the workforce is now based overseas. "Anything between 20 and 25 per cent of our population do not live here. We have the highest proportion of skilled people living offshore than any other OECD country.

"Probably one of the country's most valuable exports is our talent.

"What we have to do is look at how the loss of our talented people can be turned into an opportunity.

"How can we become the most globally connected nation in the world? How can we use those connections to grow the economy here.

"Once we get it right, if we can engage those people offshore to help build our New Zealand economy then we will build a place they will want to come home to."

Watson says although New Zealand may not be the place career-minded professionals want to return to right now, they may want to return home when it comes to starting a family.

"They may well come back when they want to have children because New Zealand is an extraordinary place, particularly if you are middle-class and are well-educated and you have some funds it is an extraordinary quality of life that you can have access to," Watson says.

"It is almost second to none.

"I think if Kiwis want to leave and flex their muscles in the world then that is tremendous. New Zealanders are widely accepted and embraced wherever we go in the world.

"It is hard to think of another nationality that gets a better reception abroad than New Zealanders.

"That is a strength, which is an endorsement.

"But we do want some of those people to come back. And those who don't, we want them to help us succeed from where they are."

*Steve Hart is a freelance journalist at www.SteveHart.co.nz