Time to forget the brain drain

Last updated 09:58 19/12/2012

With each passing month I spend as an expat, I reflect just a little bit more about how redundant our national obsession with the brain drain is.

I'm continually stunned (and proud) about how many New Zealanders I have encountered in the United States who are succeeding at an extraordinarily high level, completely off the local radar.

drainIn the middle of last year, for a story run in Fairfax's Your Weekend, I profiled six New Zealanders who were working in top management positions in Fortune 500 companies in the USA. I spoke to various people in the local business community for the introduction to this piece. KEA Global CEO Sue Watson spoke about how these expats faced overlapping tensions of tall poppy syndrome and the brain drain in how they were perceived in New Zealand. Her comment stuck with me.

The permanent New Zealand-expat is generally more successful than the baseline at home: according to research by KEA (a group that seeks to map out and connect the New Zealand diaspora globally to maximise its national value), 30 per cent of them would rank in the top 3 per cent of local earners and 80 per cent have tertiary qualifications, compared with 35 per cent of New Zealand as a whole. 

The brain drain was a problem under Helen Clark and it remains a problem under John Key.

The idea of the brain drain insinuates that a value that has been sucked out of New Zealand and is entirely lost. But running with the six Fortune 500 Kiwis as an example, the idea that these people pose no worth to our country is ridiculous. One of them had worked at various points over the years as a consultant with the New Zealand government. Several of them were involved with KEA and had served as mentors to aspiring business leaders from home.

These expats, in their top posts in America's largest companies, are walking, talking advertisements for our country, abroad. They promote awareness. They visit home constantly. They own property.

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So I'd say for a start that "drain" is an inaccurate lens to view this migration in. But I also posit that we need to take a more holistic and globalised view of this population movement.

Taking from a random NZ article on the brain drain (such has been the interchangeable nature of the updates in the narrative for so long now) the supposed factors that need to be addressed to stop this drain are lifting the minimum wage and boosting productivity, promoting industry bargaining and making sure benefits are flowing to workers.

But what articles like this don't address is that New Zealand is just really, really small and when we breed smart, forward-thinking citizens, they will always be extremely far away from the opportunities that they burn for to truly test themselves out.

One of the six Kiwis I spoke to last year was Craig Nevill-Manning, a top software engineer at Google, who was hired by the company over 10 years ago. He spoke openly about how a Google-type event could never happen in New Zealand. We don't have the requisite bandwidth, and a network administrator would have probably shut them down before their ideas had gone anywhere.

And even if our wages, worker productivity and industry bargaining were completely up to international standards... young people would still leave.

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New Zealand has smaller raw amounts of everything: music, art, culture, film, technology, innovation, critical thinking. It always will. We're set off the side of the world, born with our eyes on the horizon.

The brain drain should be taken as a compliment that we breed ambitious, smart, curious, go-getters. We constantly produce the sorts of people who could front Fortune 500 companies and bigger fish don't always appreciate small ponds.  

But the thing is, people come back. I have a pretty good sense after a few years away that for as much as I wanted to be out of New Zealand from a young age and see the world, if it wasn't for marrying a foreigner, the invisible line I feel pulling me back home would win out sooner or later.

And if I didn't, I'd still be abroad, making sure that every person I spoke to knew a little bit more about New Zealand than just The Hobbit and that every person I encountered who was planning a trip to Australia would have a little spiel in their heads as to why they should spring across the ditch for a few days.

The brain drain is an imaginary issue. The cherry on top of it all is that on average over the past 15 years 12,800 more people have permanently moved to New Zealand each year than have moved away. Of the working contingent of this net inflow, most are skilled professionals.

It's not so much of a brain drain, as an exchange or a gain.

But regardless, don't you think it's time we put the people-counting aside and took on a more global perspective and relevant awareness as to why people come and go from our country?  

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