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Over there: keeping a million offshore kiwis connected

(This article originally appeared August 31, 2013 - Editor)

They come home, often, in the dead of night. It’s always a long journey so they’re often exhausted, but keen to smell the air, see the familiar sights. But there’s no welcome mat. There are no flags, no banners. We don’t even stamp their passports.

They find it difficult, often, to find work. And when they do, their workmates either don’t understand or don’t respect what they’ve been through.

They’re the 24,000 New Zealanders who return home from overseas each year and, according to repat and brand strategist Tracey Lee, they’re a precious resource we’re treating very badly indeed.

It might not have always been this way. Certainly when I first worked in advertising, and before the idea of the “brain drain” had been coined, “working overseas” was pretty much the best thing you could possibly have on your CV.

(A CV, younger readers, is like a printed-out LinkedIn profile without all the odd endorsements.) It almost didn’t matter what you’d done, so long as you’d done it somewhere else. “This is Susan,” we would be told as we were introduced to another highly-paid new hire. “She’s just back from (slight swoon and tremor in voice) London.

These days, many returning expats feel like they’re seen as part of the problem. While the rest of us stayed behind milking cows, they were off watching the tennis at Wimbledon and taunting us with Facebook updates of glorious Northern summers while we were trying to get the frost off the window of the Mini so we could get the kids to soccer.

We’ve made a journey too, on this rather lovely Monday evening. Tonight, The Moxie Sessions is living this month’s diaspora theme, and has relocated from our usual inner-city location to a suburb called, according to Google Maps, “St Lukes.” They drink Steinlager here (just like in the ads!) and eat bar snacks the likes of which we seldom see inside the Inner Link bus route.

New Zealand has the second-biggest diaspora as a percentage of population (behind Ireland). For every million of us here, there are 250,000 Over There. So how do we make the most of this resource while they’re overseas? And what do we do with the ones who come home?

New York PR maestro and recent TEDx Auckland speaker Brian Sweeney believes that a big part of the solution lies in changing the language we use, and described how he’s been doing that through his initiative For starters, Sweeney doesn’t use the word “expat,” arguing it makes overseas kiwis feel like unwelcome exiles. Instead, he prefers diaspora, with its associations of a dispersed community linked by bonds to a shared homeland. 

By reframing the population of New Zealand from four million to an expat (sorry, diaspora)-inclusive five million, for example, we’ve suddenly got 25% more players on the team. And once you’ve identified that team, Brian is a strong believer in nurturing and encouraging their connections to New Zealand by, for example, always asking overseas New Zealanders what their New Zealand project is.

One organisation that’s all about pulling that team together is Kea (formerly Kiwi Expats Association but nowadays welcoming pretty much anyone who wants to be a cheerleader for New Zealand, regardless of where they were born or where they live). Kea was formed in 2001 by Steven Tindall, George Barker and David Teece with the aim of connecting overseas New Zealanders through volunteer-run local chapters.

Kea Global Communications Director Sam Mickell says that these days the organisation is more professionally run, and has recently used social media to quickly grow its network to over 150,000 online connections.

But for Tracey and the other 24,000 or so New Zealanders who come home each year, it isn’t making connections overseas that’s the challenge, it’s reconnecting to their homeland.

Part of it, Tracey says, is a shift from what used to be an OE – a year or two between uni and work – to an OR – an overseas residence of several years, often including significant career development. New Zealanders returning after an OR are likely to be cashed up, highly trained, and looking to continue their careers while giving their families the advantages of a New Zealand upbringing.

What gets Tracey’s goat is that while we seem to bend over backwards as a country to attract and welcome tourist and foreign investors, returning expats don’t get so much as a nod from the guy at the Customs desk. She sees a real opportunity for streamlining the repatriation process, as well as supporting returning New Zealanders once they’re back. If it makes sense to have a Kiwi Landing Pad in San Francisco, why not one in Auckland?

A first step, Brian Sweeney says, could be simply allowing people to have their passports stamped. The shift to e-passports means the first human contact returning New Zealanders have is with someone in a MAF uniform asking if you have any concealed pineapples. Offering people the chance to have their passports stamped, he says, could reintroduce a small but important ritual.

Of course, not every expatriate New Zealander will return, and not every one of them is a cheerleader. They left, after all.

But for those who might, and for those whose hearts never left, keeping them connected to their homeland, treating them as a valued resource, not outcasts, and making them feel wanted and welcome on their return could be a brilliant investment in keeping these little islands relevant, connected and competitive.

The Moxie Sessions is an internet economy discussion group held once a month in Auckland. Its purpose is to bring together a group of interesting folks from across the economy to talk about how New Zealand can take advantage of the internet to improve its economic performance.

Check out the standing invitation, the podcasts and the records of previous events at, and follow @moxiesessions on Twitter.

Thanks to Internet NZ for their generous assistance in making this Session possible.

Vaughn Davis is creative director and owner of advertising and social media business The Goat Farm.

Comments and questions

Start with KiwiBank. As an expat with 25 years offshore and a regular visitor to NZ as we import NZ goods, I wanted to put some major personal money in NZ in a USD account for safekeeping, even at low interest. "Ummmm, sorry we don't have those here.....we do that through Barclays in London". Unless you want to lend money to buy a car or a house OUR Kiwibank isn't interested. Meantime there are literally billions of $ in expats pockets that could be used to fire up the Kiwi economy.

You can have Forex accounts with Kiwibank - I have three currencies in GBP EUR and USD - and there are about twenty different currencies available.

Call their international services 0800 222 490 and you'll get sorted.

True - they like all the aussie banks in NZ do also, but who would bother. Fees of $10 per month per account and 0.00% interest.

and would you be earning any interst on that money sitting in a bank acount in the UK or US??

HSBC has multi currency multi country linked accounts. Shop around bud.

Sure NZ is a great place to live etc, but how appealing is it for returning "expats" who have found opportunies abroad that were never available to them here, and a country where bureaucracy is intruding more and more into day to day life?

Those that come back know the facts from where they have been - that NZ is one of the least regulated countries in the world.

The big turnoff for coming back is people like you who would claim the need for even freer markets. They know what caused the GFC, they have seen some of the realities and they don't want them here in NZ.

Its people like you that makes the ones with potential leave in the first place

Not so sure that I'd care about a passport stamp, but I know when I came back it was really hard to readjust and to accept that the massive international experience I had was largely irrelevant. The emphasis NZers place on 'kiwi experience' is pretty bizarre in some contexts and makes it hard not just for the diaspora but also for any partners they bring back with them.

Also to be earning a lot less in NZ, while paying a lot more for living is a difficult adjustment to make.

Spot on article, thanks :)

Brenda pretty much nailed it. This is also the experience of many of my friends that have returned. Often, the only people to value overseas experience is those that also have it.
As time and technology/comms march on, I feel this will be less of an issue in some industries, but will never truly go away.
It's interesting to see attitudes overseas to expats - sometimes the fact you are an expat makes a difference, but most often the most important thing is that you just do the job you're paid to do well.

Good on you for coming back! Would it be giving too much away to share what sector you work in? As I mentioned in the column, my experience in advertising has been that overseas experience counts hugely...

Arrived back in March after 7 years away both of us left in our late 30s/early40s. I had an APAC role in Singapore & an International role based out of London. Travelled 170+ days a year so built up an extensive global network.

On returning to Auckland i've found some employers not interested in me as I have no recent local experience; some who were concerned my previous roles meant I would get easily bored here & just leave, and some who simply didn't get what I'd actually been doing (niche specialty).

Biggest challenge NZ faces is how to harness the global network of contacts many of us have built up. We're home for valid reasons but may end up being based here & working offshore on short-term contracts if we can't land jobs.

Thag said I do have a new role. & love being home amongst the family. Won't stop us travelling again though.

Thanks for coming home! Out of curiosity, did your 170+ (very precise!) days' international travel include New Zealand? And if not, did you do anything in particular to maintain or grow a professional network that included New Zealanders?

What could govt or business bodies have done to make your experience on landing easier?

So true Vaughn. I felt adrift on my return. There was no fast track to integration yet lots of value to offer in telco and digital media space.

A well timed article for myself. After 6 years abroad I wasn't sure what it would be like when I came back 5 months ago. Just renting a place was difficult, being asked if I had NZ rent history etc. Nevertheless it hasn't been too bad, though in my job search I wondered if NZ companies couldn't be bothered looking into overseas references.

Andy were you already connected to NZ employers via LinkedIn and so on? And thanks for coming back, by the way!

Tony Alexander wrote an excellent paper on this topic some months ago following a long and lengthy discussion on the KEA LinkedIn forum. The conclusion (from memory) was largely similar to what is mentioned here.

From a personal perspective, I'm a CA working in the banking industry in London. My wife is a lawyer and General Counsel and Company Secretary of a Telco. She's been in London 13 years and I've been here 11. We're both hoping to come home permanently next year with our young children and whilst we accept both the decreases in salary and increases in living costs that NZ will bring, we are nervous about finding jobs within our sectors. Hearing of employers being put off by experienced professionals such as ourselves who see us as a threat or don't have the foresight to believe our experience is relevant is concerning and very small minded. I'm hoping our experience will differ when we're in that situation ourselves but failing that we'll possibly set up our own business. Or join the hordes residing in Australia permanently.

Hi PES and I do hope you both make it back. You mentioned the KEA LinkedIn forum ... do you feel you've maintained strong links to NZ from the UK? Has KEA been helpful to you on the ground?

Dear Kiwi expat,
You aren't anything special. The world still does not owe you a living.

If you find it difficult to find conventional employment on your return, why not use the skills and experience that you gained overseas to set up enterprises and organizations that reflect those opportunities?

Get your facts straight.
Resident population 4.4m
Nz born living overseas, around 650k the last time Treasury looked at it.

This one million thing is a myth and it's perpetuated by self important folk overseas and also politicians who use it to support their causes.

If you are happy and overseas, good. If not, come home, and vice versa. Lots of successful kiwis in nz. So if you aren't successful here maybe it's not the country that's the problem.

Also, point me to the stats that show that "tall poppy" syndrome is solely a kiwi thing. It exists in all the European and Asian countries I have lived in. Get over it. Don't use it as an excuse for failure .

if your current income is leveraged against coming to NZ than stay where you are as you will be disappointed, if your goal to live in a relative safe unpopulated country with plenty of scope to expand and room for kids to grow then NZ is hard to beat

Well this returned expat has had it ... I'm off again!

I've spent 10 years trying to break into local 'scene' without much recognition for a very advanced degree and top experience from over 'there' (somewhere).

Now with multiple excellent job offers, including equity stakes in start-ups I can't stay here any longer in all good conscience waiting for NZ to get over itself. Most times now I do not even get replies to job applications, intro letters.

Sayonara, I really tried to contribute but clearly not wanted here ...

The above post is one of the more genuinely tragic in 2013. Time for the stay-homers to get over the fact that returnees and very, very often, new arrivals have more experience, skills and knowledge than those who opted for 'lifestyle'. Smart countries like Singapore, Aus, RSA, UK welcome new skills and varied experience with open arms, and stow the insecurity.
How about a NYNZ resolution NEVER to be that timid again?

Cronyism is rife in NZ. That's why returning expats with all the skills in the world don't get the few good jobs available. And that's one big reason why NZ's stuck as a low wage low productivity economy.

As an expat I left because NZ pay rates are disgraceful and I refused to be classified as a monkey receiving peanuts.

NZ is also a very sick dangerous country with the highest incidence of child abuse in the world, and the government doesn't do anything different to tackle it.

Would be good to see an article tackle the issues that force Kiwi's to leave. Passport stamps.... get real.

Expat Kiwi's

Are you really? You left not through your own choice. when you return its your own choice as well. No one is forcing you to come.

If your intention is right you will succeed , where you are doesnt matter.
What matters in the end is you so dont blame the country.