Australian expats excluded from global talent budget push

Is local recruitment doing enough to keep Australian expats here once borders open again?

Last week the government announced a suite of budget measures designed to ‘attract global talent’ and to set Australia up for the future.

These measures, recommended by the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Global Business and Talent Attraction, Peter Verwer include a suite of tax and regulatory relief changes designed to make it easier for foreign companies to be based here and for employees to work here in organisations like start-ups where owning shares is a big part of the reward.

These measures, while sound, miss the bigger and more urgent opportunity.

Which is how we embrace and integrate global talent.  Over the last year, COVID has given Australia a gift and that is the return of hundreds of thousands of Australians from overseas who are already the ‘best and the brightest’ and ‘global talent’.

But we are in real danger of losing talent back overseas when borders open because our labour market ostracises rather than embraces Australians returning home.

Australian expat experience shows disconnect between government policy and local recruitment practices

There is a huge chasm between the government’s vision to attract ‘global talent’ and the way the local recruitment market behaves. And in referring to the local recruitment market I mean both external recruiters and internal hiring managers. What has been absolutely consistent feedback from the Australian expats I have worked with over the last eight years, is that the local Australian market does not fully appreciate overseas experience.

I have had one person say that despite returning from five years in New York in senior HR positions for major global financial institutions, that she would not be represented locally because she had been ‘out of the market’. I have had a global leader in card technology, rejected by the big banks. An IT systems designer with 20 years European experience has had to take a huge pay cut on a temporary contract (for exactly the same role), just to get into the market. Many expats have simply started their own businesses because it has been too hard to get an Australian company to understand and appreciate their value.

Yes, it is up to the returning expat to be able to translate their experience locally however as a nation who is now spending hundreds of millions of dollars seeking global talent, isn’t it also the labour market’s responsibility to change how we approach hiring?

Lack of support for global talent mobility

The challenge doesn’t just extend to the returning Australian.  Often the expat is returning with an overseas born partner, often also a global professional. But they too face the same challenge only harder.  My latest podcast guest, Michael Waite, returned in 2020 with his wife, a highly qualified paediatrician who used to work at one of the leading hospitals in the US.  She is now living in a regional community with a dire doctor shortage and yet cannot serve this community because she is made to start her career again as a junior doctor working a handful of shifts hundreds of kilometres away from home.

Lack of an innovation mindset

Expats often turn to entrepreneurialism because in a sense to be an expat and to survive as an expat, you have to have a bit of this spirit about you to both survive and thrive.  Michael Waite is a case in point.  Michael and his family were on an 18-month holiday around the world when they popped back to Australia for the Southern Hemisphere summer for a visit when COVID and family tragedy struck. He and the family then decided to make regional South Australia home for the immediate future. In April 2020 and somewhat as a COVID project, Michael made headlines starting the local Naracoorte News after Australian Community News suspended the local paper.  Michael is a COO and a CFO with zero publishing experience, but it was his entrepreneurial spirit that saw him start the newspaper in just 16 days working with his local community.

Many people talk about innovation like it is a ‘thing’ and ‘things’ are obviously easier than people to invest in.  The government’s 2021 budget has introduced ‘patent boxes’ so more biotech and medical companies will patent and protect ‘things’ locally.  Again, a sound measure, but innovation is a mindset and where is the investment in ensuring that people with these mindsets like Michael don’t leave?  Not only did hundreds of thousands of innovative mindsets return home last year but tens of thousands of innovative minds were lost from the tertiary sector.  Both these groups will be looking overseas for opportunities overseas if we don’t invest in keeping them here.

Michael and his wife are really trying to carve out a life and a professional future here, but it has been tough.  Michael made the comment: “Australia really has to be really honest about whether it wants expats to stay.”

A sad comment and one that runs completely counter to the government’s vision.

So what can be done to truly embrace from the brain gain?

We need to urgently address the gap between the government’s vision and local employment practices and mindsets.  I believe we can do this in the following ways:

  1. The recruitment market needs to focus on hiring for skill rather than simply on ‘local experience’. Expats by nature are adaptable, if they can adapt to life living in South America, they can adapt to life back to Sydney.
  2. The local recruitment market needs to think global – and this means looking for talent who can work in global contexts. Not only will this attract the right talent, but it will create the right global workforces which will make them attractive places for people to stay.
  3. The local recruitment market needs to start looking for the ‘innovation mindset’ not just the person who worked on the ‘innovative thing’.
  4. The local recruitment market needs to be sensitive to returning expats and to help them. During COVID, many have had to pack up lives on a timetable out of their control.  They may have returned with a partner not from Australia and kids who have had to change schools and lives that they have only known. They are surrounded by rhetoric that has been critical of the returnee suggesting ‘they should have come home when the government told them too’ and that they should feel  ‘lucky to be here’. Now they are facing the prospect of more uncertainty with our closed borders – and a very long periods of time separated from family and lives they used to live which makes the transition back home much harder.

The opportunity is now

They say in sales, it is 10 times harder to sell a product to a new customer than to one who has already bought before so always look after your existing customers.  This is why I am so frustrated that as a country we want an innovation agenda, yet we do so little to embrace returning global talent.

Why are we chasing new global talent, a task 10 times harder, when there is an immediate opportunity that can be reaped, not in the medium term, but right now?