RICHARD GILLIES* says we should not fall into the trap of attributing too much significance to the brain-drain of young New Zealanders.
The recent newspaper advertisement by young New Zealanders entitled "A Generation Lost?" failed to convey an articulate, coherent message.
Slightly rephrasing a passage of the full-page advertisement, which appeared in the Herald last Thursday, it read: "I am a young New Zealander who cares deeply about my country and its future, and is seriously concerned about its economic direction. It simply isn't working."
But hang on, the debate over New Zealand's economic direction is not a simple matter. Certainly, not simple enough to view the cry for help from those naming themselves as economic exiles as a constructive response to the present situation.
I fit comfortably into the demographic targeted to support young Aucklander Richard Poole's campaign. I am in my 20s, tertiary-educated and student-loan indebted.
I, too, have witnessed the departure of a fair number of friends for "hot" job markets in London and Sydney, and yet my concerns are not of a similar magnitude to those of my contemporaries who have proudly attached their names and occupations to this cause.
There are several reasons I do not agree with the advertisement's message. Chief among these is the knowledge that New Zealand is not alone in its current plight. Typing "brain-drain" into any internet search engine yields numerous hits sourced from a multitude of countries - Australia, Canada, South Korea, Britain, India.
The same countries to which we are exporting skilled people are themselves leaking talent to the United States. Is New Zealand's brain-drain a symptom of a poorly managed domestic economy or of less manageable global processes? Equal parts, perhaps.
Waves of economic migration are not new to New Zealand. How many of those named in the advertisement were among those who left to escape the post-building-boom recession of the early 1990s? Or the wave that left for Australia in the early 1980s? If anything, our generation of emigres is lucky. A lucrative global labour market is more accessible than ever.
If free market theory purports to deliver economic choice to the individual, the current wave merely demonstrates that rational economic choice is now a mandatory part of being young, especially for those compelled to mortgage their education. Some will return, and some will not. Despite our best efforts, New Zealand probably cannot match the core economies in terms of career opportunity or remuneration.
However, those who do return will bring with them skills, capital, exposure to the global markets in which New Zealand products compete and a concrete vision to pursue the opportunities they have spied. Is it going too far to suggest that young New Zealanders who seek opportunity overseas actually add value to New Zealand in the medium and long term?
Furthermore, New Zealand's perceived lack of opportunity for young professionals is contestable.
A case in point is the information technology and software sector. New Zealand companies are seeking overseas candidates for vacancies for skills in Java and Oracle development, web design and e-commerce that our current graduate crop cannot fill. One local university website claims a domestic shortage of up to 2000 software engineers. However much that institution's marketing department might have inflated the figure, the nationwide annual graduate output is a long way behind.
I can attest to the skill shortage in the Auckland market as the owner of a non-technical liberal arts degree who has spent two years on a comparatively modest programmer's salary, and has nothing left of a student loan that fell into a fairly average $20,000 to $25,000 bracket.
So, how do we entice these highly skilled people back? Higher pay might not fit well within the overall framework of luring overseas companies here, since one of the major factors governing high-tech investment is the cost of labour. This was one reason why Motorola considered placing a research facility in Christchurch.
In the IT industry at least, it appears that the pull of financial reward overseas outweighs the push of a weaker domestic economy. Appealing to all our political leaders is not likely to bring solace, if this is so.
The advertisement's voice begs an obvious question. Why, in particular, should New Zealanders worry about our younger compatriots leaving? I feel greater disquiet when reading about the departure of older scientists with a track record of solid achievement. Two recent examples stand out. Associate professor Boyd Swinburn has taken his coronary disease research from Auckland's Medical School to Australia because of lack of funding.
And despite receiving substantial public money, Professor Nigel Sammes took an entire research team from Waikato University to an American corporate entity willing to buy the potential of his fuel cell research.
In terms of real or potential worth to New Zealand, how many 20-something salary-hungry professionals would you swap for those two? Entrepreneurship and intellectual capital is not skewed towards the 18-35 age bracket.
There are also signs that private sector investment is growing in the sort of new-economy start-ups for which those in moneyed exile yearn. New Zealand has a growing footprint in the export of software products and services, while a relatively small biotechnology company such as Genesis is an example of privately funded research into potentially market-gobbling bio-medical products.
Perhaps these growing pockets of enterprise are less visible than they deserve to be given the preoccupation (stronger than normal) for taking aim at New Zealand's key economic indicators, which have seemed fairly woeful as long as my young, untrained mind has been able to follow them.
There is much to commend in the intent of those who identified themselves in full-page glory as worried young New Zealanders - but not their contention that the Big OE has now become a long-term loss. There is plenty of talent left in New Zealand, and not all of it aspires to London.
Those named in the advertisement say they are motivated and passionate, but if all that "the best of our next generation" can muster is a glib marketing message that parrots a child who threatens to leave home and not come back, maybe New Zealand is in serious trouble.
* Richard Gillies, a 27-year-old Aucklander, is a software analyst/programmer.