Making New Zealand “sexy”

By Julian Wood May 07, 2019

In contrast with our apparently “sexy” accent, New Zealand is struggling when it comes to being attractive as a long-term home for skilled migrants.

According to the 2015-16 Global Competitiveness Index New Zealand ranked 17th in the world in its ability to attract talent. The top positions went to the Swiss, Singapore and then the United Arab Emirates. The picture gets worse when we add in our ability to retain talent. While Norway is slightly worse than us at attracting talent (20th place), they are 4th in the world at retaining talent; whereas we’re struggling down at 31st on the list. Our main problem isn’t getting people to migrate here, but we’re apparently doing a terrible job at convincing them to stay.

Maybe this is because of the story we tell ourselves around migration. We see New Zealand as an exclusive and attractive club that anyone should be grateful to be allowed into. This self-deception is bolstered by the flood of applications of potential migrants who are keen to join. We then look at the applications and invite only the top applicants to join our club; ones we think can contribute and be of “net benefit” to our club. Unfortunately it would seem that we haven’t spent the same amount of thinking about whether membership to the New Zealand club is all it is cracked up to be for those who make it in. Indeed to make headway we may need to rethink the model entirely.

Our main problem isn’t getting people to migrate here, but we’re apparently doing a terrible job at convincing them to stay.

In truth, we aren’t inviting a player to join a club, we’re often asking a family to join a society, and studies show that migration retention appears to hinge on how families migrate. This is partly why smaller towns struggle to attract new migrants and struggle even more to retain those that do come. The smaller region might have a job available for one member of the family but they may not have a job matching the partner’s skill set. Similarly they might not have the schooling options for robust second language acquisition. It turns out that good schooling options available for children in the family are a must. While regions compete with each other on the basis of comparative advantage, migrant families will select a place to live on the basis of the benefits available for the whole family. This is why big cities are so attractive.

So how does Norway get to be a rockstar at retention? It seems that places outside of the main centres in Norway are starting to take this “whole family advantage” lesson to heart. Firms explore options within a wider community to see if they can provide employment to both spouses, and local governments are assisting by helping to establish international schooling options and by investing in technology that enables good distance language learning.

This is why big cities are so attractive.

Having a sexy accent apparently comes naturally to New Zealanders, but making our regional centres an attractive home for talented migrants and their families will require us to rethink our responsibilities as hosts. We’ve got to work to welcome families, not just individuals.

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