(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 nzedge.com. 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 http://themoxiesessions.co.nz, 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.
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