New Zealand asks its citizens to come home

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When is the last time you heard about a country aiming an advertising campaign at its own citizens? That's exactly what New Zealand has been doing for the past few months - and it's not just propaganda. With labor shortages across several industries, the country has an urgent need to lure back the 10 percent to 15 percent of its citizens who live abroad. The International Herald Tribune's Daniel Altman reports.

Countries all over the world have been dealing with "brain drain" as a result of globalization. East Europeans are taking advantage of membership in the European Union to move west. Some Asians are using special visas to work in highly skilled jobs in the United States. Others are finding their highest-paying opportunities in fast-growing areas of the Middle East and the Pacific Rim. Yet in order for living standards to rise in their own countries, a portion of that talent, skill and education will have to return.

Faced with a squeeze, many governments are trying to lure back native brainpower. New Zealand has found a promising strategy that happens to be affordable, too.

The combination of trade agreements, information technology and a well-educated, English-speaking work force has allowed New Zealand to export high-value services like banking and insurance, as well as attracting tourism and film production. Since 2000, economic growth, adjusted for changes in prices, has averaged just over 3 percent annually - better than in many bigger countries.

Services now account for about two-thirds of the country's jobs. But shortages have been spreading across fields like architecture, engineering, health care, higher education and the law. Last March, 26 percent of business executives responding to a quarterly survey said an inability to find skilled workers was restricting growth; it was the biggest share since 1974. The unemployment rate had dropped below 4 percent and was still falling.

That's when the government started looking at ways to get involved, said David Cunliffe, New Zealand's immigration minister. The staff at the ministry started looking into the behavior of expatriates.

They found that half of those who went abroad eventually came back, a quarter never intended to and did not, and another quarter had thought seriously about returning but had not. That last quarter became the focus of a program introduced in November. "We have the highest diaspora per capita of any developed country except for Ireland," Cunliffe said. "We want to get back the quarter that weren't sure."

The nexus of the program is a Web site that supplies information to prospective migrants, expatriates and foreigners alike. It contains information about everything from finding low mortgage rates to setting up franchise businesses. The Web site is supplemented by links to other publicly and privately sponsored sites, including a jobs clearinghouse.

"We want to make sure that there are no unintended barriers for Kiwis who are coming home," Cunliffe said. "We want to give them the latest information about what's going on back here. We want to make it easier to find a job."

Still, the government has stopped short of offering direct incentives, like free one-way airline tickets or tax breaks, to bring expatriates home. The reason? "Frankly, we don't need to," Cunliffe said. New Zealand already has a lengthy backlog of skilled migrants trying to relocate from the United States, Europe and Asia. But expatriates, Cunliffe said, offer the best bang for the New Zealand buck.

The Web site was an immediate success, with a million hits on the first day and a total of four million within two weeks. Soon, the government plans to introduce videoconference facilities linking New Zealand to London so that employers can talk directly to prospective returning expatriates. After Britain, the ministry plans to target Australia.

Since the program's introduction, New Zealand's economy has cooled off a bit. Unemployment is currently at 3.6 percent, and payrolls may actually have shrunk in the last quarter of last year, according to official statistics.

Labor shortages persist, though, said Brent Layton, director of the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, the private consulting group that conducts the quarterly survey of businesses. On balance, he said, managers are still finding it difficult to attract the workers they need, even in relatively unskilled occupations - the ones for people who might not be using the ministry's Web site.

Besides filling those gaps, the return of expatriates could have several positive effects. For example, many New Zealanders go abroad to deepen their education, learn specific skills or work in bigger organizations than the ones at home. "When they do return, there is the positive effect of training and ideas and so forth," Layton said.

"Globalization is a fact, not a philosophy," Cunliffe said. "It's very important for our future economic growth that we get the talent and skills we need."