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Returning New Zealanders deserve a softer landing – and a warmer welcome

We’ve long lamented the loss of New Zealand’s best and brightest. Now that the ‘brain drain’ has the potential to be reversed, let’s not squander the opportunity, writes Toni Truslove.

When Robert Muldoon famously quipped to a journalist that New Zealanders who migrated to Australia “raised the IQ of both countries”, his response diminished the value of those who left and reflected the indignation of those who remained.

As a nation we’ve always had a love/hate relationship with those who’ve departed (even as most of us have, at one time or another, departed). For almost 30 years there was a feeling that some of our best and brightest were abandoning us and heading to greener pastures. Those departures felt like insults directed at those who’d stayed. Whether through envy or tall poppy syndrome, we perceived that the departees earned more overseas, had greater career opportunities, travelled more, had more exposure to culture and more fun than those New Zealanders who remained.

But clearly, whatever Muldoon may have said or implied, the estimated one million New Zealanders we lost offshore were hard-working and smart. Among them were likely many of the best and most talented minds we’d ever bred, educated and trained here during our recent history.

When Kea was established in 2001, it was out of recognition that these expats, sitting just across the ocean, could provide essential human capital and the diversity of perspective New Zealand needed to build a great economy – innovative business people, tech entrepreneurs, exceptional creative talent… we just had to reach out and ask them to stay connected to NZ, to help. We did ask, and many answered.

Almost 20 years on, in the time of Covid, as many of these overseas New Zealanders now seek to return home and the country’s brain drain has reversed, they’re now finding a very mixed welcome.

That is a missed opportunity for New Zealand.

Not only are we failing to arrange a soft landing for these New Zealanders we have long lamented the loss of, they’re facing an unclear process and sometimes hostile rhetoric from the media and public – increasingly convincing them to stay away.

New Zealand has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reap the benefits of a multitude of candidates with offshore skills, experience and perspective in a world where borders remain closed to non-citizens.  With the second largest offshore population in the OECD, New Zealand has a competitive advantage in the skills race.

In managed isolation right now (or waiting for a flight) potentially is the kind of talent established New Zealand businesses are increasingly looking offshore to recruit. Essential skills holders such as nurses, vets and diesel mechanics along with entrepreneurs, investors and technology masterminds. With closed borders, the flow of talent to those businesses will slow and potentially stunt the growth of some of our economic mainstays.

In addition to established business, more than ever New Zealand needs innovation, start-ups and investment. Looking at the bigger picture, we need to consider which industries are going to sustain New Zealand in the longer term, and what minds are needed to develop them.

We are in the process of missing an enormous opportunity to embrace the skills and perspectives needed to complement and diversify the New Zealanders’ brains already here to drive our recovery in the Covid era.

This opportunity is New Zealand’s “brain gain”. It’s about time we started proactively welcoming these people both in our attitude and the planning/infrastructure we put in place to ensure they thrive.

Kea launched its global “Welcome Home” survey in August and is seeking the help of New Zealanders to forward it to their compatriots offshore. Let’s encourage our overseas friends and family members to check in with NZ, and build an essential data set to enable New Zealand to better support them.

It’s time to change the narrative and to instead say to these returning New Zealanders, “nau mai, haere mai, welcome home”.

Toni Truslove is the chief executive of Kea, an organisation that aims to connect and engage with New Zealanders overseas.

Read more: Duncan Greive on what the return of thousands of high-achieving New Zealanders could mean for our imperilled economy.




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