Is Australia’s brain gain temporary?

3 reasons we may lose Australians once borders open.

Commentators and media have speculated that COVID could be both a ‘brain gain’ and a ‘brain drain’ for Australia. Neither side has the stats yet to take the win as the debate is playing out real time but where the argument for ‘gains’ was initially streaking ahead, ‘drain’ is making a comeback.

It started as a win for the ‘gains’.  More than 500,000 Australians have returned home due to the lure of Australia’s freedoms and handling of COVID combined with a desire to be closer to friends and family.

Economically, Australia is doing well – unemployment is low and there is a skill shortage – meaning on paper, this is a great opportunity for people returning home to find work and contribute to the ‘gain’.

But just when we thought the ‘gain’ had the momentum, Australia’s closed borders have started to have an impact. Foreign highly skilled expats, who have been permanently living in Australia, are rethinking calling Australia home.

And it is not just foreign expats getting restless, the Insync network is also hearing from Australian COVID returnees who are reconsidering making their move back to Australia a permanent one.

Here are the top three reasons we may lose Australians once borders open:


Closed borders are significantly impacting millions of Australians who have family overseas causing them to re-think where they live in the future and their ability to travel between countries.

To imagine how significant this is, we just need to look at the numbers. More than 30% or 7 million Australians were born overseas.   Around one in four partnerships are inter-ethnic.  Thousands of Australians who returned last year, travelled back with a partner, spouse and or children born overseas. And sadly there are 200 families still separated from their children.

The family connections that drove Australians home in 2020 are the same ones pulling many of these families away in 2021.


Australians who live as expats are generally highly skilled and educated which should make it easy for them to get a job in Australia?  The answer is yes and no.  While there is a skill shortage, expats often struggle with the local recruitment market understanding their roles and experience overseas.  According to Advance, around 85% of Australians who repatriate find it difficult to find work with the local job market.

Many people within the Insync network have lived overseas for decades, often coming back to Australia with no or weak local networks. In a much smaller market, often it is the local networks which are the most useful in securing work and for many expats, they simply don’t have this access and they have to build again.

Unfortunately, this is an experience that hasn’t changed in at least in the 10 years I have been working with the repat community.  Many expats who came home last year have family and life commitments – so if finding a job is too difficult in Australia, many will consider moving again where they can be more certain of a future income.


There are also repats who are concerned about the limitations closed borders have on their lifestyle. Many expats/repats have built lives that are global, building business or choosing flexible work that allows them to live a life across different time zones. This is not just the case for young digital nomads, many older professionals heading into retirement have built ‘portfolio careers’ that can afford them a life split across countries – pursuing work while maintain connections with friends and family. Many are telling me that this life is no longer viable without a plan for international borders.  For those heading towards retirement, there is no soft re-entry back into Australia when people are forced into an either-or situation.

While it could be easy to say, open the borders, start the planes and all will be resolved the reality is two-fold.

Firstly, that ‘ain’t happening any time soon.  While countries are opening up, restrictions in some form are likely to be in place for the immediate future.  Secondly, regardless of the speed of reopening, as a nation we need to be doing much more to support our returnees. Australia is a much stronger country because we have Aussies willing to live and work overseas and come back.  Not only do they represent Australian interests overseas, but they bring back valuable global knowledge and experience.  We will be a lot poorer off as a nation if we restrict the movement of the Australian diaspora.