Fight the brain drain with immigration (duh!)

The brain drain, much like the bogeyman, is apparently a myth, writes Sim Ahmed.

For many years the ‘brain drain’ was the bogeyman lurking in the dark corners of New Zealand’s technology sector, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting businesses to rob them of talent, innovation and growth.

Statistics New Zealand throws a spanner into the works, then, when it says the brain drain, much like the bogeyman, is a myth. Most people leaving the country are lower-skilled workers and their families. In the past 15 years New Zealand has gained an average of more than 12,000 people per year, 10 percent of whom are considered skilled professionals. It’s more brain exchange than brain drain, says Stats NZ – but it hangs in a precarious balance.

Immigration is stemming the loss of technology talent in the country at a time when there aren’t enough skilled workers to go around. There’s already signs of strain as companies are left kicking each other’s shins for the right staff. Until tertiary institutes start producing more technology graduates,  the New Zealand’s immigration strategy needs to do more than just stem the loss – it needs to drastically kickstart our talent pool. So, how?

Less red tape

Immigration is critical for Auckland game studio Gameloft. Unable to find to find enough developers here, the company hired immigrants to fill more than half of its positions. Studio director Patrick Wagner (himself a French import) says the snail’s pace at which immigration applications are processed is hampering the Gameloft’s growth. It can take anywhere between two to six months per person and with the need for 20 new hires in the near future – and even with a staff member dedicated to processing immigration applications – Gameloft risks falling behind. Speed is of the essence for Gameloft to compete globally, says Wagner. Red tape and bureaucracy is harming the ability for New Zealand companies to compete with outfits in nations that are able to scale with more agility.

Incentivise entrepreneurial immigration

The Startup Visa Bill in front of the US Senate right now has the potential to change the face of Silicon Valley forever. The legislation sets out to create a visa category for entrepreneurs with a pathway towards citizenship. New Zealand needs its own startup visa, something to incentivise entrepreneurs to bring their high-growth businesses to the country. Admittedly, while we may need ambitious entrepreneurial immigrants, we have little to offer in return. New Zealand is a small market where it’s difficult to secure early stage funding. The 100% Pure brand and associated tourism sound bytes are unlikely to be enough to sway even the hardiest Tolkien fan to move their startup to New Zealand.

Of course, immigration isn’t a magic bullet, it’s a part of the puzzle that needs to be worked on in tandem to spur on the growth of New Zealand’s digital economy. There are positive signs on the horizon, with Prime Minister John Key saying National is a pro-immigration party. He says immigration was vital for the success of Silicon Valley and it will be vital for the success of Silicon South Pacific. Now the ball is in his party’s court to attract more skilled technology immigrants to New Zealand and make sure the brain drain remains nothing more than a scary story business people tell around campfires.