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NZ's failure to harness returning expats' talent costs exporters - BNZ man

BNZ chief economist Tony Alexander told TVNZ’s Q+A programme that the underutilisation of returning migrants is costing the country in terms of potential export growth.

“So, often we may start a company in New Zealand, we look to expand overseas, but we come back with our tails between our legs because we’re not used to the business culture, for instance, overseas. We may not be able to make good decisions about what distributors, franchise operators to pick up overseas. And yet what those expats can offer is a higher degree of connectivity with interested parties offshore, and of course a bit more of, I guess, an internationalised world view. They’re a bit hardened. They know a bit more of the ways of people overseas.”

Around 24,000 Kiwis return home each year and Tony Alexander says we need to do more to harness their talent and experience.

“What they have is an expectation, I think, when they come back that the skills, the experience they’ve picked up overseas will be highly valued, that surely employers would be queuing up in order to offer them jobs. But what they find is that often the employers are just a wee bit shy of them. They’re wary that maybe they’re going to leave again within six, 12 months or so. They’re wary that maybe they’re just going to be a wee bit of an assertive nature for the culture that they may have in their company already in New Zealand. So the expatriates find that they’re not as highly valued as they think they should be, quite frankly.”

Researcher and Brand Strategist Tracey Lee spent 12 years overseas and has recently completed her Master’s thesis on return migration. She says the issue is becoming more important as Kiwis stay away longer, in many cases upwards of five, seven or 10 years.

“So it’s something that New Zealanders often internalise, and they’re like, “OK, I’m having a tough time. I’m doing something wrong.” And I think— And they are coming up against, as Tony touched on in terms of the professionalism, they are coming across this sense of “not invented here”. Like, they’ll say, “We’re not really interested in your fancy foreign ways.” So they’re trying to negotiate this. I think not necessarily— I don’t think necessarily everyone’s looking for replicating their lives overseas.”

Tony Alexander says there's a definite wave in terms of people going to Australia coming back, “and what we’re seeing at the moment is that net flow has changed by about 5000 in the past year. Fewer Kiwis are going; more are coming back. And I think we’re going to see a lot more of that when we see our unemployment rate a year ago was at 6.7%, now at 6.2%. We’re heading down to 5%. A year ago Australia was 5%. They’re now 5.5%. Maybe they’re heading towards 6%. The bright light has gone out a bit in the minerals development sector, so, yeah, we’re going to see a lot more Kiwis returning especially.”

The BNZ economist says many return migrants are surprised by the high price of housing here, “and what I’ve been having to point out to them is that the longer they wait, the higher the price is likely to go, because this is overwhelmingly – as the other speakers have already said earlier on this morning – it’s a supply issue. There's a shortage. The shortage is getting worse every month.”

Watch the full Q+A panel discussion here.

Comments and questions

NZ business people's failure to utilise the talents of returning expats is just one symptom of a wider problem: their tendency to over-promote their cronies at the expense of their talented people.

Owner-operators will always go with someone they know who is OK over someone who appears to be much better but an unknown.

Point 7 most applicable, but look forwad to your thoughts after you have read the article.

Get a grip! This is a matter that perplexes immigrants every day. Many New Zealanders are innovative but others also extremely parochial. Good practice, standards and known and proven methodologies aren't sufficiently accepted and the leap-frogging advantages they might bestow are often left unwanted and unused.
Don't let the obsession with punching above your weight blind you to the fact that some not born here may hold the skill-sets,experience or knowledge that can get you up to speed where it's required.

I did post-doctoral training at Harvard (in the sciences) and then came back to New Zealand for family reasons.

The resentment and jealously from a couple of third-raters at my work was palpable and sufficiently destructive that ultimately it compromised the outcomes and common goals of all our work.

Eventually I left, but my skills and capabilities were never adequately utilised by them, to their cost in my view, even though they were paying for them! Which when you think about it is really a special kind of stupid!

But it reminded me that HR management in this country is often extremely ineffectual, self-serving and fails to advance the outcomes of the organisation it works for.

Most people are self serving, not just NZers. It's a human affliction.

True, but if it is defeating productive outcomes at the work place what are you going to do about it?

It is a shame for those you go to great lengths to improve themselves only to be pushed down by those who are at the top. Those at the top, including the government, do not respect their employees enough and they spend too much time finding out ways to ultimately cheat them.

Sounds like a disgruntled employee who expected everyone to revolve around them.

Let your performance shame them into oblivion. Or just leave.

I didn't quite get exactly why NZ employers should hire returning expats, who have failed to stay in employment overseas, over and above Kiwis who are working in New Zealand.

Probably because their skills and experience will make them a more productive employee than the unmoving unchanging dullard who plays it safe, stays behind and wears sensible shoes.

Areas of calculated risk taking, adaptability, change management, a willingness to try and master new things, openness to new ideas and just plain old fashioned have a go - necessary elements to any businesses long-term success - I thought would come with the territory of most expats?

In what environment, though? All the above is lovely, but if it isn't applicable to the local economy and business environment how on earth is that a bonus to an employer who watches the walls fall down around him because someone who was overseas for a few years think they know better?

Good point! Reward those who stay for the long term!

Who says they failed to remain employed overseas? Many return because they want to return. Is that in some way a failing? If it is, it looks like we will have to stop advertising abroad asking Kiwis to return, and instead say 'if you leave you're not welcome back'.

OK, if an English rugby player appeared here and wanted to join the All Blacks because he'd played in a country that way much bigger and therefore better would you just say "come on board"? I fail to see why ex-pats think the OS experience is so much better? All the references as to why just seem to be "bigger, better", but nothing applicable here and now apart from that.

Where is the 'they come from big orgs and irrelevant to scale here' come from? Expats are equally working in innovation hubs, specialist units, nimble tech companies, sales, distribution and marketing... And correct me if I read the economic papers on growing NZ wrong, but growing exports are a major imperative for us. So first-hand experience of the markets we're trying to crack and be competitive in by skilled NZ expats who are eager help New Zealand succeed is irrelevant because...? Perhaps you could explain to me.

There are actually 5,000,000 New Zealanders. It's just that 1,000,000 of them choose to live overseas; draw your own conclusions from that.

Firstly, why is our talent being driven overseas, and secondly, is it the talent or dross that is returning?

Talent, actually. Demographics suggest it is the blue collar who are leaving in droves, but the white collar returning. Mind you, there are quite a few coneheads who are white collar than we all admit!

4.5m in NZ, about 600k outside. The 1m figure is a myth. Similar % diaspora to Canada. Just the nature of having a bigger neighbour we can easily access.

Returning expats are generally arrogant and often over-inflate their CVs. How often is ' I worked for Merrill Lynch' really mean, ' I processed forms in the FX back office'!?

Yep, and they go on and on, but then when the rubber meets the road and the bullsh*t stops and whammo - the excuses flow like cheap wine on K Rd.


I disagree with you. I have a staff of 13. Only 3 Kiwis and of those 2 have returned from overseas assignments simply because they wanted to come home. In my experience I would hire a Kiwi who has gone overseas and seen what the "real world" expects of an employee. The kids here start at 8.30 (9.00), take morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea (as is their legal right) but manage to extend it beyond their legal means. I am lucky if I get 5 decent hours of work out of them.

NZ's universities are selling the taxpayers a bill of goods and pillage students of their tuition. They are neither trained nor prepared for adult (employed) life. Like others, we are now looking to move our company overseas where we can find dedication and talent.

There is actually an assumption that the returning people have skills? Why? Who says so? Partying perhaps would be top of the list for Gen X & Ys. There is no doubt a few do come back with some skills learned but I wouldn’t bet that’s most of them.
Wrong question and pointless answer. Correct question should have been along the lines of what skills do NZ business lack for exporting? I would suggest in my more than 20 years at it in most cases the answer is very little. The reason we fail is usually lack of capital and a useless govt and govt departments like NZTE, which don’t help in any way, shape or form. Unless you are one of the lucky few to get money off them, then as we see in the DHL report of NZTE customers (sorry, they call it a business report but it isn’t) just released that all is rosy.
We are one of the only countries in the world which gives no support to our exporters and we wonder why they fail?

Blaming the government for your lousy export performance is telling.

This from a country with access to the world's largest free trade area.

Great piece of research and I fully agree this returning expertise and experience is not being leveraged by NZ companies - or govt - anywhere enough. International exposure and experience is very eye-opening about business culture and the important different ways of doing successful business. Bring it on!

Maybe cashed-up expats with a lot of knowledge should be putting it all on the line and starting businesses. I know many Kiwi people started businesses that returning expats now want to work for by putting it all on the line. I suspect a hesitation to do so and probably due to "not having a good enough handle" on the local economy will be the reason not to buy or open a business. Yet they want top dollar from an employer?

With NZers, attitudes such as the those reflected in comments by Onetrack and Linton are fairly common. It is no wonder so many talented Kiwis choose to stay overseas.

Returning ex-pats get treated like dirt by the NZ-for-lifers whose idea of international travel is an Easter trip to the Gold Coast. My own story would make your skin crawl but I'm not going to air it publicly, except to say everything this article is saying is true - by times 10.

Many ex-pats return to NZ because they have family ties, a genuine want to help NZ do better in the global arena and, of course, lifestyle. When they get back they instead find they are shunned and treated like some kind of damaged goods because they achieved "over there".

I'm not sure if it is some kind of twisted out-growth of "tall-poppy syndrome", cultural bias or otherwise, but it is definitely a palpable thing to experience and disturbing to witness.

Great line about the Easter trip to the Gold Coast.

I once heard a rather cynical expat say that for many New Zealanders "international business experience" means haggling over the price of a straw donkey in Fiji.

If you are not worried, tell the world. Make a difference!

Quite damning your NZ work experiences as an ex-pat. But, it's fair to say, as a NZ-born Chinese, I find the "average" Kiwi male quite agrestic and insular in his outlook; the need to show off manly-ness with rugby immersion and the "Good on ya, mate" drinking culture. You know, all the refined sophistication of an Eden Park rugby crowd, as the All Blacks' opposition team is about to take a penalty kick.

I spent 12 years (living in two countries) overseas and returned to NZ only to find the culture had descended into racial disharmony, a culture of victimisation and, with that, the inevitable payout industry.

In the corporate workplace, I constantly battled with 'threatened' senior management - so much so that management meetings became a battleground. I left and now own a successful company.

After one has worked in large economies you tend to get things in perspective. New Zealand is but a small South Pacific economy and in the global context, nothing more than a 'cottage-industry' economy.

It is a fact and all the 'threatened safe players' need to broaden their horizons.

Well said, Grundle. Many more on here should follow your lead and put their cash where their mouth is.

Have to agree with Tony Alexander. Returning to NZ is career suicide. By all means come back for the "lifestyle" but make sure you've made plenty of money before you do.

This has been the case for decades and shows no sign of changing.

That's a bit harsh, TBH. Careers in all countries are different and have different rewards. No one ever wants "high achiever" or "really successful" on their tombstone that no one visits, do they? Or maybe they do? I think everyone is entitled to their opinion of success. For some it is career, some it is a healthy, happy family. Been like that for decades, I suspect.

Often those returning have experience of large corporates working in banking, accounting, law and HR.
The real successful engineers, salesmen and entrepreneurs stay overseas, where there are market opportunities.
NZ needs makers and sellers, not unproductive so-called professionals with large corporate mentalities.

Read the article and it certainly mirrors my experiences after living in two countries for 15 yrs and another 8 yrs in NZ on two occasions in my adult life.

I'll leave the reader to decide whether I am currently living in NZ or overseas.

I have been offshore for a good part of the time since 1994. We left NZ after our children were grown up, simply to travel and experience new things but we work while away to pay our way. Recently we are spending time overseas as we have grandchildren.

I am an IT contractor, and mainly work for IBM. From 2009-12 I lived in NZ and had no problem finding work. I did a couple of contracts in NZ and 2 or 3 (short term) in Australia via my NZ company.

To be fair, I tend to do this via personal contacts rather than applying for jobs, although the main personal contact I have I got when I applied for a job when I was back in NZ in 2005.

I don't see a lot of difference in what I do (data integration and business intelligence) between NZ or offshore, other than size of my clients' customer base. Technically, the work is the same.

I think my area of expertise and the area of work may not be the norm for returning people, but it is a fairly consistent skill set requirement in all countries (12) that I have worked in.