One Question Quiz
This year could see the highest level of net emigration in a decade (Getty Images).
This year could see the highest level of net emigration in a decade (Getty Images).

The BulletinMarch 29, 2022

The brain drain returns

This year could see the highest level of net emigration in a decade (Getty Images).
This year could see the highest level of net emigration in a decade (Getty Images).

Kiwibank warns of the highest level of emigration in a decade as New Zealanders face high costs at home and opportunities abroad, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

Heading for the exit as restrictions fall.

There have been few weekends since Christmas where I haven’t spoken with friends preparing to leave New Zealand. What was once a series of anecdotes is now backed by a growing volume of data. Kiwibank is predicting that 20,000 more people will leave New Zealand this year than arrive. Stuff reports that would be the greatest period of emigration since the Australian mining boom of 2011. Aotearoa’s pre-Covid immigration surge has been in reverse for most of the last 12 months, with the Customs Service counting more departures than arrivals at the border. Since December, the trickle of departures has picked up momentum. It isn’t a flood, but it’s disquietingly large.

What’s driving the busy departures lounge.

New Zealand has a tight labour market, record low unemployment and a clean green image around the world. The border is rapidly opening to new arrivals. The country also has comparatively low salaries, a high cost-of-living, breathtakingly expensive houses and sometimes limited opportunities. Little of this is new. It’s hard to predict what exactly will happen in the coming months. Will workers be enticed to leave for better wages and opportunities? Will long-delayed OEs attract people overseas? Will recently arrived immigrants, after two years of pandemic purgatory, leave to be closer to friends and family? The answer to all is likely yes. Some young New Zealanders told RNZ why they decided to leave.

Listen to Coming Home, a podcast about the brain gain we saw in Aotearoa in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic

Convincing long delayed migrants to come.

The other side of the equation is that some people will come the other way and make a home in New Zealand. I asked the prime minister yesterday how she intends to respond to Kiwibank’s prediction. She said immigration officials will be prioritising working holiday visas for young travellers who have already expressed an interest in coming to New Zealand. That’ll help the country’s tourism operators, but not the large skills gaps in medicine, construction and virtually every skilled industry. The NZ Herald (paywalled) has looked at the links between immigration and the country’s worker shortages.

There’s a global war for talent and New Zealand needs to step up.

Interest explains that New Zealand is now competing with the likes of Australia and Canada for skilled workers and it needs to work harder. While Canada set its all-time immigration record last year and has increased this year’s target to even higher levels, officials in New Zealand are looking at a wide immigration reboot. The Productivity Commission is expected to finalise a report next month that considers migration levels going forward. However Aotearoa isn’t just competing for immigrants, its also a target. The NZ Herald (paywalled) reports that international recruiters are now eyeing workers here, with offers of higher salaries and cheaper homes.

Some young people leaving might eventually be a good thing.

It might not be a brain drain, but a boomerang. Stuff reports that many people, leaving on OE or for work overseas, will eventually return home with new skills. Kiwibank is predicting that net emigration should be short-lived, with arrivals outpacing departures by next year. It’ll be important for New Zealand companies to recognise the value of the international experience from returnees and new arrivals. Stuff has written about the incredible struggle migrant doctors face. This is also one of the complaints I’ve heard from people considering leaving New Zealand in recent months: the trouble convincing employers to recognise foreign work. “Sure, you’ve handled marketing campaigns in New York and Chicago, but what do you know about Hamilton?” a New Zealander told me about an unsuccessful interview in Auckland. “The foreign experience was seen as a detriment.” They’ve since left for Toronto.


Keep going!