'Brain drain' reversing for first time in 20 years, but NZ needs to do more to entice Kiwis back from overseas - report

The tide has turned on New Zealand's 'brain drain', a new report says, with more highly skilled Kiwis opting to return home than head away from our shores for the first time in 20 years.

The report - entitled Nau Mai | Welcome Home - was released by The Helen Clark Foundation and WSP on Tuesday morning.

It shows there's been a net gain of more than 16,000 Kiwis since COVID-19 arrived on our shores, with many more expected to return. Report author and Helen Clark Foundation deputy director Holly Walker said the pandemic has "given us an opportunity to rewrite the story of our diaspora".

"In the first year of the pandemic, the numbers of New Zealanders leaving the country and returning to live were down on both fronts," she said. "This represents the first net gain of New Zealand citizens for more than two decades."

And more Kiwis are expected to return as borders open, the report says - with the potential inflow described as "significant".

"Early on in the pandemic, there was speculation that New Zealanders overseas would flock home in large numbers," Walker said.

"While some have returned, the numbers haven't been huge - likely due to the difficulties of global travel and quarantine restrictions. However as these restrictions begin to ease, we could see more New Zealanders coming home for good."

Walker says there are as many as 1 million Kiwis living overseas with valuable skills, experiences and expertise - and the key to enticing more of them home is to ensure we're building "world-class cities and towns where people want to live".

Ian Blair, managing director of WSP New Zealand, says creating these sorts of places means building better homes, improving public transport, ensuring green space is plentiful and encouraging more connected communities.

"We must also encourage decision makers to take a holistic approach to planning future infrastructure investments to make sure that we are planning for our population and demographic make-up not for today, but for 20, 30 and 40 years from now," he says.

The report makes three key recommendations to attract more Kiwis home:

  1. "Understand and tap into the potential of the offshore diaspora. This includes adopting a diaspora strategy and gaining a better understanding of how many, where, and who our overseas New Zealanders are."
  2. "Roll out the welcome mat to those who wish to return. This means making it as easy as possible to come home with information, resources, and the removal of barriers."

  3. "Develop world-class cities and towns where people want to live.  This means investing in better urban infrastructure, improving public and active transport, and ensuring there is affordable, accessible housing for everyone so we can accommodate those who return."

While the reversal of New Zealand's brain drain sounds like good news, not everyone's buying it.

Economist Tony Alexander last month told Press Reader New Zealand was likely to see "a good number of people disappear" to Australia, where wages are higher and the cost of living is lower.

In June it was revealed Australian recruiters were flying back and forth across the Tasman in June with the intention of poaching New Zealand's talent - on some occasions offering to double their pay.

One headhunter Newshub spoke to was openly looking for 20 lawyers to take back over the ditch with him, while leaders of New Zealand's construction and engineering firms were also feeling the pain of the brain drain.

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