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Brain drain or Brain exchange?

Manning a booth at a Careers Expo! How did I let myself get talked into this!? I just have to learn to say: “I’m really sorry but I’m terribly busy. Please, do ask me next year” and hang up.

Paul Paynter08 April 2015

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I approached my allotted booth and mustered a face of feigned enthusiasm. The place was riddled with busloads of what appeared to be typical gen Y’s; endlessly seeking excitement in their smartphones as they shuffled by. They might be worth engaging with in another five years, but surely I was wasting my time.

Two hours and 11 servings of humble pie later and I had a better perspective.

Those that engage confidently at careers expo science booths are a near monoculture of intellectual achievement. To me, they seemed the most ambitious and inspiring generation of young people ever! These callow waifs were talking nanotechnology, quantum physics and biotechnology. They understood they had timed their run perfectly in terms of the new frontiers of science and technology that are opening up.

I might have failed to inspire them, but they inspired me – only briefly though, as I knew that in a few months most were off to Otago, Auckland or wherever. They generally don’t hang around in Hawke’s Bay.

Please go away!

There has been renewed discussion about the ‘Brain Drain’ lately; BayBuzz (Nov/Dec 2014) and Hawke’s Bay Today (31/1/15) having notable features. It’s an issue that causes a perennial gnashing of teeth amongst social commentators and politicians. “How do we keep our young people here?” they ask.

After considering all the arguments, I’ve decided on a message for our youthful treasures: “Please go away! And when you’ve secured a university qualification – please stay away.”

I still love these kids, in my own strange way. What I don’t want is to keep these bright little lights in Raureka or Greenmeadows. I want to share them with the world, or more correctly, to share the world with them.

All societies are full of mindless tribalism. Do you support the west or the emerging world, the Israelis or Palestinians, New Zealand or Australia, Auckland or Waikato, Hastings or Napier, Boy’s High or Karamu? When it comes to the brain drain it seems like we naturally want to consider it from the perspective of ‘Team Hawke’s Bay’. But how are we a team? We had five ‘mayoral’ captains last time I checked.

As far as I can make out, we’re a province mostly for statistical convenience. As far as our young people are concerned, we shouldn’t demand they join the tribe and do what’s best for Hawke’s Bay. Let them do what’s best for each of them as individuals … and for most that means going away. First they should get the best qualification they can; then get some lessons from the school of life, preferably far from the comforts of the nest.

The truth is we have limited educational opportunities in Hawke’s Bay. If you ever fancy the services of a doctor, dentist, lawyer or vet you won’t find a new graduate that qualified here. Even if you could study these things in Hawke’s Bay, in these fields EIT would be generations away from being as well-staffed or prestigious as our top universities. EIT earns high regard in a number of areas, viticulture and oenology and nursing for instance, but employers are snobs in many other fields.

The Machiavellian reality is a big name university qualification almost always wins out on the employment front in a close race with a ‘second tier’ tertiary qualification. There isn’t much evidence to indicate such snobbery is rational, but it’s everywhere.

I worked for a time in a staff of 900 at a London law firm. The unwritten recruitment rule was that they only employed graduate lawyers from Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol, because that’s where the Partners went. If you’re looking for a job there, you can either stand outside with a placard protesting such nonsense, or simply attend the right school.

Get a life

Hawke’s Bay also offers high quality – but limited – life experiences. As a passionate Frenchman once said to me: “It’s more important that I learn to speak English than you learn to speak French.” In the same way, it’s more important for our young people to experience the big cities and economies of the world than for youthful city slickers to experience Hawke’s Bay.

I went abroad in my mid-20s and found myself flatting with an equity derivatives trader and an arbitrage trader. I’d never heard of these jobs previously, but I wish I had – they were entry level workers but still earned three times what I did.

When I got back home I realised the truth – New Zealand is a backwater and Hawke’s Bay is a backwater of a backwater. Now, I love it here and wouldn’t have it any other way, but if you want your kids to be well-rounded citizens of the world, they’d do well to spend a little time in rich countries and a little time in poor countries.

One of the ironies of the recent brain drain discussion is that Hawke’s Bay Today interviewed David ‘not from around here’ Trubridge. And I’m writing for a magazine started by foreigner. In the ‘woe is me and HB’ moment, we forget about all the wealthy and creative people we attract to Hawke’s Bay. Even if some don’t choose to live here, they’ve built Craggy Range, Elephant Hill and the Cape Kidnappers development. Those investments create the fancy job opportunities we seem to crave.

The truth is that there is less of a problem with a brain drain now than there has been for a generation. Flagging prices for natural resources means smart Kiwis are returning in droves from Australia. At the same time we have booming immigration of the best and brightest (or wealthiest) from Asia.

More than a decade ago Treasury released a paper entitled Brain Drain or Brain Exchange?, which showed that we’ve had outflows of smart kiwis for decades but that these have largely been replaced by inflows of new immigrants. They concluded that what we’re really seeing is “the increasingly free flow of people (including New Zealanders), around the globe”.

There is nothing that attracts and retains clever people more than a prosperous economy and appealing job prospects. Recognising this, the National Government staged a Job Summit in 2009, shortly after being elected. They got all the best heads in the country together to work out how to boost employment. They have never quite admitted it, but they failed to come up with any good ideas. A national cycleway was about the most impressive thing that emerged from the hullaballoo. It’s nice, but hasn’t generated a raft of highpaying jobs, post-construction.

In a similar fashion we have local body politicians and other ‘do-gooders’ endlessly rabbiting on about how “We need to create more exciting job prospects for our young people”. Who’s “we” exactly? That menagerie of council CEOs and mayors? There seems to be a vigorous campaign to get rid of 80% of them – on the basis they’re expensive to maintain and perhaps not doing a great job anyway.

No, the job prospects in Hawke’s Bay rely on the prosperity of a few key industries and the passions of the business people and entrepreneurs of our region. And none of these people get out of bed in the morning primarily thinking about what they can do for ‘Team HB’. They pursue their personal passions and ambitions in a place of their choosing – much as our young people should be doing.

I’d be pleased to welcome you all back to Hawke’s Bay in a decade or so, but until then I’m happy to drive you to the airport.

Paul Paynter is our resident iconoclast and cider maker. Sometimes he grows stuff at Yummyfruit.

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Paul Paynter08 April 2015

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