In the game of soccer, we sadly accept that for top players, furthering their careers means living overseas. When they come back, we welcome them. So why do we turn our backs on the best and brightest in the technology industry?
Every year, new reports emerge that illustrate the drainage of talented Australians to overseas companies, taking their skills and productivity with them. Less well known is that a large proportion of those workers return, bringing back a wealth of experience beyond the grasp of most locals.
Even less well understood is that an alarming proportion of these people are currently unemployed — by some estimates, up to 70 percent will not find work for a significant period of time after returning. In an industry where intellectual property moves so freely across borders, it’s odd that its people cannot.
The reasons are many, and in some cases blame lies at the feet of the returning expatriates themselves, who have difficulty readjusting to the smaller market and cannot match the experience or pay packet they enjoyed offshore.
But in many cases returning expatriates have difficulty finding employers who value their skills, especially in the technology industry.
Overseas experience is even viewed as a disadvantage by recruiters and potential employers, as it represents time away from the nitty-gritty of the local market.
Time out of Australia, especially when working for a foreign company, means removal from local industry networks, making it harder for returnees to get a sense of what is happening and who might need them. While industry bodies such as CPA Australia make it easier for accountants to return to their profession here, other sectors lack such a mechanism, and technologists can drift for lengthy periods without assistance.
Almost the opposite is true in financial services, where a stint overseas can round out a person’s experience. Australian companies have also been happy to recruit foreign CEOs with no experience in the Australian market — al la Denis Eck, Bob Joss and Frank Blount. Surely people who are born here have greater sympathy for local market conditions?
Word of the problems experienced in Australia is well known within the ranks of expatriates, further discouraging some from returning. This is crazy — with Australian companies driven increasingly to export, skills in foreign markets should be classed as invaluable.
A November 2004 report from the Lowy Institute entitled Diaspora: The World Wide Web of Australians, by Michael Fullilove and Chloe Flutter, highlighted the accompanying issue that Australia is doing too little to utilise its 750,000 strong diaspora of well educated and generally well-placed offshore Australians. While groups such as Advance, the ANZA Technology Network and the Southern Cross Group are working hard to create overseas assistance networks, there is surprisingly little in the way of formal recognition of this massive talent pool, let alone thoughts towards its utilisation for the betterment of the country.
The Lowy report recommended that government should ‘lead from the top ’ by embracing the Australian diaspora rhetorically, and establish a coordinating unit within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The report also called upon all sectors and institutions to strengthen linkages.
What is clear however is that these people, who represent a skill set in short supply in Australia, are being chronically underutilised. In a world where an increasing number of skills are being ‘commoditised’ and developing global markets is essential, letting such resources remain idle is a crime equivalent to any soccer team leaving its best players on the bench. Other countries have done it — both India and Israel have managed to create extensive networks to tap into the talent of returning expats. Can it really be so hard here?