reversing the brain drain

October 31st, 2010

It’s been a surprisingly interesting morning in the New Zealand Herald, one of the more interesting articles I’ve come across being this one: Kea lures Kiwis to fly home. I’ll resist the urge to pick the headline apart, but it is surprisingly well constructed for a newspaper.

Kea – the Kiwi Expat Association – has been around for a few years now. I’ve been a member for I can’t remember how long. It was founded to link up expat Kiwis and use our ties internationally and to New Zealand to help boost the New Zealand economy. All well and good, and a mission I agree with and support. I haven’t found Kea to be terribly useful, personally, but that is in large part because I haven’t been the most active member [that was my attempt to win this year’s “Understatement of the Year” award], but part of the reason for my inactivity is that the China branch for a long time seemed focussed on the Shanghai business community. It has expanded to include Beijing a lot more, but I never see anything in the email updates which would be useful to me or to which I could contribute. I don’t mean to knock Kea. Given the level of activity, it must be useful to many expat Kiwis and plenty of them must be contributing, it just seems to all be happening in fields far distant from those I work in.

And, of course, one thing New Zealand as a whole has been worrying about for decades is the Brain Drain. Trouble is, nobody’s been able to come up with a way to attract us expat Kiwis back. Sure, there is the lifestyle and environment. There is education – a field in which New Zealand does pretty well. There is family. And no matter which way you cut it, it’s just home. But is that enough to attract us back? Some quotations from that article might shed some light as to why so many Kiwis prefer to live and work overseas:

“Have to say returning to New Zealand has been a very negative experience. I earn less than a third of what I did in Europe, work at a level of about half I did over there and now have an inferior lifestyle …”Most New Zealand employers also did not want to recognise overseas experience or did not understand it, he said. “However, definitely applaud the efforts of Kea in aiming to provide support.”

“I’ve been hearing media and academia harping on about the ‘brain drain’ for the past 10 years … If we’re such good innovators, why can’t we come up with innovative ways to keep our local talent and attract global talent to our shores?”

“Opportunities in New Zealand for science are quite limited, especially for research.

“What I am struggling with at the moment is the way New Zealand industries place you in a particular category or give you a specific label and don’t see the crossover skills that you can bring.”

Well, the simple fact is that New Zealand is a small economy, and that is always going to restrict opportunities. But New Zealand’s employers could, and should work harder at paying better, expanding research and development, recognising the true value of language and cultural skills, and valuing overseas work experience.

With a baby on the way, my wife and I have done some hard thinking about where we’d rather raise kids, and when it comes to the natural and social environment and education – especially education – New Zealand looks really attractive. But we’re going into this knowing that with our skills being in language and culture and our work experience all in China, it will not by any means be an easy transition.

Another quotation:

“If you’re coming back to Auckland, think about doing something outside the square.”

Oh, absolutely, it is always good to think outside the square, and I’ve been pondering outside the square ways in which we could make our skills and experience work in New Zealand. And we probably would aim for Auckland, as it is the largest, most diverse city with the largest Chinese population and the university best set up for our further educational needs in New Zealand. But outside the square thinking should not be necessary. New Zealand needs to offer paths both inside and outside the square, with outside the square being an optional lifestyle choice.

And the mention of Linked In had me doing a quick search for the Kea group. Found it easily, joined, and browsed through the list of members. What I saw was a lot of very successful Kiwis, what I did not see is any working in linguistic fields. Yep, a definite lack of language teachers, translators, interpreters, or academics working in linguistics, applied linguistics, translation studies, or languages and literatures. I may well have skipped over a few – the Kea group has many members – but I didn’t see any. Given the wide diversity of countries these people are working in and the huge variety of surnames, there must be plenty of polyglot Kiwis out there, but bi- and multi-lingualism are not enough. We need people working in linguistic fields, too. Gotta train up the next generation somehow, for starters, and there will always be a need for professional translators and interpreters, even if we do magically transform our country into a nation of polyglots.

And this brings me to another article I found interesting: John Key has been busy at the East Asia Summit. And it always slightly frightens me when I found myself agreeing with a National Party MP, especially when that MP is the PM, but he’s right:

More jobs and a stronger domestic economy will flow from further building New Zealand’s trade ties with Asia’s surging major economies, says Prime Minister John Key.

But to trade with Asia, and to do that business well, we need to learn their languages and cultures. It is not enough to stick with the usual lazy Anglo assumption that because everybody’s learning English, we don’t need to learn foreign languages. It is most certainly not enough to continue feeding the stereotype of the naive Kiwi businessfolk flying in, signing a contract, and disappearing back home again, apparently thinking they’ve been successful, but having actually achieved only a tiny fraction, if any, of the success they were hoping for. If we’re going to be successful in our trade with Asia, we need to understand them. How? We start with learning their languages, because language is the key to culture and so learning their languages will allow us to understand thier cultures. Learning to understand their cultures will enable us to understand their situation and view of the world. Why do we need to understand their situation and view of the world? Because without that understanding, you’re going to have a hell of a time pitching your products and services to them.

If we’re going to make a go of trading with Asia, New Zealand’s business leaders are going to have to value Kiwis with Asian experience and skills in Asian languages. It really is that simple.

In my experience, expat Kiwis are a pretty proud, patriotic bunch. I don’t expect you lot back home to understand or even believe that statement, or the one that follows this sentence. Sometimes I think we’re even more patriotic than you lot back home. We’re always excited to see our fellow Kiwis succeeding, and we want to see our country not just do well, but kick arseingly do well on the global stage. And we want to contribute to our country’s success. And we want to know we have a successful country to go home to. New Zealand’s small size means that there will always be some of us who need to leave to fully develop our potential, that much is unavoidable. And there will always be those who prefer the expat life or the lives they build for themselves overseas. That is also unavoidable. But we don’t need such a huge brain drain. You want us back? Respect what we’re bringing back with us.

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