Green, green grass of home

When Wayne and Arianna Capper heard their children's Australian accents they knew they had been across the ditch long enough.

So after nine years away, seven of which Wayne spent working a month on with only one week off in the mines of Western Australia, the pair came back to Taranaki to set up home for their seven children in New Plymouth.

It's the best decision they ever made.

"The money may be good but if you look at it, the money for what you are missing out on, you start thinking is this really what I want to do," Wayne says.

"If you have been here since you are young you don't see the benefits of being here. It's not till you are away that you realise there is so much you can do here."

Then their is whanau, safety, familiarity, affordable housing, the environment and, above all, the contentment they are home and giving their children the lifestyle they themselves only treasured once they left.

After a decade when tens of thousands of New Zealanders annually turned their backs on such factors and chased the lucre overseas, more and more families are now following the Cappers' example and coming home.

Individually there are many and various reasons for people to be homeward bound but a significant factor right now is an economic downturn in Australia making a mockery of its Lucky Country moniker.

With more than half of New Zealanders who leave to live overseas heading to Australia, or more precisely to Australian money, when it's economy gets sick they start coming home. Based on present trends there will be a net migration gain of 40,000, possibly even 45,000 by the end of the year. The bulk of those migrants and returning citizens are expected to end up in Auckland and Canterbury where the most jobs are, but Taranaki is pegged to get a boost too.

You probably haven't noticed but it already has. Last year 56 more people arrived here than left. That in itself is hardly worth a mention but it comes after years of angsting over how to stem what seemed like an unstoppable loss of hundreds of Taranaki's best and brightest overseas each year.

It's too early to say the brain drain has reversed, though it could be argued the plug has been put back in the bath. Whether the province will now start filling up remains to be seen. Opinions on the future share little consensus.

New Plymouth's National MP Jonathan Young says the net gain of people returning to Taranaki is a sign they see a positive future here compared to where they left from and he's got an impressive array of figures that appear to paint a rosy picture for the coming years.

"New Zealand is one of the better economies in the OECD with NZ Treasury forecasting 170,000 new jobs in NZ by mid 2018. Between now and then incomes are forecast to grow by 20 per cent with inflation only growing by 12 per cent. This means the average full-time wage would be $62,300, up from $54,700 in mid 2013," he says.

The man who would have his seat come September, Labour MP Andrew Little, is not so confident things are getting better.

"My hunch is the small net gain largely reflects the downturn in the Aussie economy and quite a few Kiwis are returning home. However, I suspect the rash of job losses earlier this year, especially in some of the skilled areas, will be somewhat sobering for people coming back.

"The regional report put out by Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment recently projected no population growth for Taranaki over the foreseeable period. This is not good," he says.

Both men agree more needs to be done to get businesses investment here.

Little says an obvious start is for the government to ensure it is investing in the regions. Young sees another obvious opportunity in developing tourism. It's a start.

Earlier this year New Plymouth businessman Graham Wells helped set up the type of organisation that aspires to be another type of starting point in growing Taranaki's economy and giving it some pulling power.

Though he now owns a business that employs 650 people, Wells remembers well his aimlessness at high school. He didn't know what he wanted to do. More specifically he didn't know what opportunities were available even in his own back yard, something he says is not uncommon.

There is no short answer to the question of how to keep people in Taranaki over the long term. The focus of Taranaki Futures is that people don't leave to start with.

"We want to encourage people in secondary school to develop a line of site to a career so they can present themselves to a potential employer with a basic understanding of what is expected of them."

The downstream effect of focused and motivated employees is business owners can concentrate on growing their business instead of simply managing their staff, he says.

The initiative is well intentioned and already looks as though it will succeed, but it does little to stem the outflow of 30 per cent of Taranaki school leavers who must ditch the province to attend university.

This drain has the effect of squeezing Taranaki's demographic waist between the ages of 18 and 30, so that while there are school-age people, middle-aged and pensioners in national level proportions, young adults are in short supply.

Auckland-based EziBuy product developer Grant Collier believes it is this tertiary gap that is part of the reason he can't move back to New Plymouth, where he once worked for Taranaki company Tender Link.

In the market for a six-figure management job, there simply isn't that many high-level opportunities here, he says, and so, while his family would love to live in Taranaki again, his career keeps them north of the Bombays. He doesn't accept it has to be this way.

"New Plymouth has all the lifestyle benefits. Pretty good infrastructure. You have an airport that can get you to Wellington or Auckland quite quickly.

"Why aren't people moving business down to places like Taranaki? Especially in a tech space. Why aren't they doing it, why aren't we seeing it?" he says.

The bright sparks, the entrepreneurial young crowd gravitate to Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland and Dunedin, he says, where there are communities of similar-aged people. It is these people who spark innovation and therefore could create jobs outside of Taranaki's historical primary power houses of dairy, oil and gas.

The future, or a future, as Collier sees it, is not necessarily in hyping the lifestyle opportunities Taranaki has to offer but rather in being a technology hub.

He points to Tenderlink as an example of a tech company thriving despite being based in "isolated" Taranaki. He says TSB Bank has the potential the county's leader in financial tech innovation. There is official recognition of the need for this too. Over the past three years 94 research and development grants worth $8.1 million have been awarded to 52 Taranaki businesses. These grants are administered through Callaghan Innovation, the government's hi- tech HQ for business.

"Tech to me just makes so much sense. You can do it anywhere. But you've got to create an ecosystem or an environment that encourages young tech companies to move there. People will go where the smarts are. People didn't go to Silicon Valley in the start because it was a nice place to live," Collier says.

"They went there because that's where the most exciting work was taking place there."

Taranaki Daily News