NI's Expat Talent: Could We Be Doing More To Bring Them Back?

4 April 2016

We produce an exceptional number of talented, bright minds given our population; our regional exam results top the tables year after year and our education system is one of the strongest in Western Europe, yet NI still suffers from a 'brain drain'. Promoting repatriation appears to be fashionable again with some local campaigns, but I question if we could be doing more to bring our indigenous talent home.

To begin, I have a unique perspective on repatriation both personally and professionally. I have returned to NI having lived in the North West of England for over 7 years; during which time I recruited across international markets and encountered various repatriation and nationalisation strategies along the way.

In the Gulf countries for example, they have Emiratisation, Qatarisation and Saudisation initiatives in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia respectively. These programs were established to promote knowledge transfer in economies were there was an over-reliance on an Expat workforce coupled with an upwardly mobile, highly educated generation entering the labour market. Simply, employers are rewarded for an increased proportion of local employees to Expats. Emiratisation was launched a decade ago and involves certain job categories being allocated as 'Emirati National Only' posts.

In Saudi Arabia, the nationalisation program goes further. Saudisation is linked to a traffic light system for the private sector called Nitaqat. Nitaqat sets companies targets of the percentage of overall workforce to be Saudi Nationals based on the size of company and the sector it operates in. If you achieve Premium or Green category results, you receive perks such as express visa renewal and visa transfer privileges. If you find yourself in the Red category you are blocked from new visa applications and cannot renew current work permits until this is addressed. This is all designed around promoting and developing the national talent.

I encountered Malaysia's strategy to tackle the issue while recruiting there. Petronas is the national oil and gas company of Malaysia and has a very strong influence across the country; 45% of the Malaysian government’s budget is dependent on Petronas' dividend. Firstly, any organisation working on a Petronas project will automatically have their organisational chart assigned with Malaysian nationals. Regardless of whether you are BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, you must approach Petronas demonstrating you have exhausted the search for local talent to then have that particular slot on your org chart reassigned as an Expat role. Secondly, if you are a Malaysian national returning from living abroad you enjoy benefits such as a 3-5 year reduction in income tax rate, cash allowances, health and dental care.

Obviously these are extreme examples and our friends over in Brussels might not be best pleased if we were to follow suit. However, promoting the development of the national and locally educated workforce is at the forefront of these initiatives; beyond talking about it in NI, I question whether we should be doing more.

I touched on my personal relocation. My wife and I moved to England with the intention of giving it 5 years and returning; we stayed for 7 and a half. My motivation was the birth of our daughter and the draw to be closer to family. Having said that, I encountered my own difficulty when moving back. I was told by some that my experience wasn't relevant to a Belfast market where it is very tight-knit and everybody knows everybody; that working internationally is very different to working in NI. It can be! I encounter this regularly with Accounting candidates I speak to - they have worked in London or further afield for a few years and are told the experience they have gained is perhaps too niche or specific for the Belfast market. They often find they will have to take a step back just to enter the NI labour market. We should be embracing those who want to return and contribute to the NI economy, not presenting them with barriers.

The upcoming changes in Corporation Tax have been agreed to promote business, to attract FDI's and international organisations to NI. This is another tool organisations such as InvestNI can use to market NI to these firms. What about the diaspora? We find ourselves where we are competing on the world stage for our own talent. Of course, people have their own motivations to leave, as well as motivations to come back, but are we presenting repatriation as an attractive option? Are we reaching out and making returnees feel wanted? Should we be incentivising with financial or professional perks? Could we be doing more to bring our talent home?

I don't claim to have the answers, or that other countries have it right, but is it not worth having a discussion regarding a coherent strategy from a high level to address the issue?


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