For all the upheaval caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic, it has also presented a number of unexpected opportunities, perhaps none more so than the returning Kiwi diaspora.
By August 2020, more than 33,000 had returned - and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
According to the Welcome Home survey carried out by expat Kiwi network Kea in the last quarter of 2020, around 250,000 Kiwis plan on returning home within the next two years, while a further 250,000 could follow in the years after.
This can legitimately be described as a once-in-a-life opportunity, that brings international talent at the top of their game, global insights and a desire to build a future here.
For regional New Zealand, this has the potential to be a game changer. Following its global survey, Kea released the Unleashing the Potential of our Returning Kiwis report, which identified that
- Around 20 per cent plan to invest in a business and 11 per cent intend to start their own business, with 8 per cent intending to employ between 2-5 staff.
- Nearly a third are returning with a spouse, some bringing children and pets.
- While 32 per cent intend to reside in Auckland, the remainder are looking to return to regional New Zealand, with 22 per cent leaning towards a region they haven't lived in before.
However, a shorter commute and bang-for-buck housing isn't going to be enough. As an employer of a 2000-strong workforce with 40 offices around the country, we know the "sell" required to attract talent to the regions.
While the lifestyle is compelling, professionals want exposure to legacy projects and, until recently, we haven't had a lot of offer. However, this is changing.
The talent WSP secured for internationally-renowned projects such as the City Rail Link in Auckland, combined with further investment in rail – such as the Northland rail rejuvenation, Inter-island Resilience Connection project and Te Huia service – means there is a pipeline of work for this talent.
Government investment in large-scale infrastructure projects, particularly outside of the metro centres, means talent can work on truly innovative legacy projects. Te Ahu a Turanga: Manawatū Tararua Highway is an excellent example, combining world-leading approaches to sustainability, safety and design with strong community outcomes – particularly around local employment, housing and businesses.
In Northland we've seen increasing investment result in projects such as the four-laning south of Whangārei and the Tai Tokerau Water Trust targeting investment into the primary sector.
Furthermore, the Government's infrastructure investment to kick-start the post-Covid rebuild has seen $210 million allocated for climate resilience and flood protection projects, $155m for transformative energy projects, about $180m for large-scale construction projects and $50m for enhanced regional digital connectivity. In our region this means funding for projects such as bridge upgrades and replacements, several sport facilities and good support for alternative modes of transport in Northland.
Covid-19 has also normalised remote working which has had a transformational impact on the workforce. Economic consultancy Infometrics has highlighted that many returnees have continued working for the companies they were employed at offshore, reducing the need to find new jobs in New Zealand.
Meanwhile, the experience of working from home during the national lockdown – and for Auckland, the subsequent lockdowns - has changed attitudes towards office presence.
Obviously, this is highly dependent on the industry, but for professionals returning to New Zealand, the opportunity to work outside of a metropolitan centre means more potential to base in the regions. Infometrics says working regionally is opening doors for workers and expects to see a concentration around the regions for the next five to 10 years.
Northland has an opportunity to define a future in a world that has changed irrevocably, WSP is ready to deliver.
Peter Houba is WSP Northland regional manager. He's been a resident of Whangārei for nearly 30 years and is passionate about the transformational change quality infrastructure and investment can bring to communities.