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Aaron McKenna: How can we bring our emigrants home?

The energy and vibrancy of younger workers is what drives an economy on – but, quite apart from that, emigration is a poignant human tragedy.

Aaron McKenna

THE NET OUTFLOW of Irish citizens emigrating since 2009 has been 116,300 people, according to the Central Statistics Office. More than that got on a plane to leave but so, too, folks have returned. Though the economy is starting to pick up, outflows remain strong. The latest annual CSO figures tell us that 40,700 Irish people left the country to April of this year, with 11,500 returning and a net loss occurring of 29,200.

The narrative around emigration is well told. The economy tanks and folks queue for visas to places like Canada, the US and further afield. Some of these people return, but many stay away for many years as the country struggles back to its feet. By the time Ireland seems able to take them back, somewhere else has become home. They settle down into careers, neighbourhoods and relationships. Families start, and they become forgotten about in the migration figures and instead become a welcome boost to tourism numbers.

Away from the statistics, emigration is a poignant human tragedy. It’s not a war or natural disaster, but it creates real heartache for all those concerned. Whatever about economic arguments impelling us to try to reverse a brain drain, at the heart of the matter is a simple non-quantifiable truth: we miss them.

We need the energy and vibrancy of younger workers

Romantic notions of returning to the old sod aside, our economic future will be dulled for their absence. Some 47% of those who left last year were graduates, and a third of those going already have jobs.

The energy and vibrancy of younger workers is what drives an economy on (name me the modern tech giant revolutionising the world that was founded by old men in suits). The young are driven to prove themselves, getting on the ladder and propelling themselves up it. This is a dynamic vibrancy we need.

Emigration is also highly economically wasteful. We spend all this money raising and educating people, and then export them as they are on the cusp of contributing to society and the economy.

We now face a challenge as a nation that will require the suspension of short-term thinking in favour of longer-term gains. We don’t have unlimited time to get this right, because every month and every year we let slip by to working groups and white papers and nice speeches by Ministers is time that our emigrants are using to bed-in abroad.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, made a point during a speech this week about preferring to build houses for Londoners rather than “oligarchs from Zog.” He didn’t have a particular problem with people from Zog, he said, but he just preferred that government policy show preferment for those from the locality.

We need an open jobs market that anyone with the right skills can avail of. But so, too, government policies could be put in place that would make it easier for Irish emigrants to connect with job creators and ease their transition home. Government should never stop a company hiring the right person from Zog versus an Irish person in Canada simply because of nationality, but government could offer supports to Irish emigrants that it does not need to share with anyone else.

Jimmy Deenihan, the Minister for the Diaspora, probably got his job as a sop by his friend Enda Kenny after he demoted the chap from cabinet. If the position is a PR exercise to throw on a few high profile events, it will be a failure.

What Minister Deenihan and his colleagues need to do is provide concrete action to help people return. Speeches and reports pay nobody’s airfare home.

So, what can be done? 

The first thing we should be doing is connecting with emigrants the moment they leave, outlining ways that they can ultimately return home. We should be connecting them with Irish organisations abroad and the State should make efforts, via these organisations, to keep in touch with all emigrants. We need to sell the good news stories from home to them.

So, too, we should connect employers and emigrants via the vibrant Irish civil society that has been created in the far flung corners of the world we now inhabit. I was once at a massive technology trade show in Taipei when a fella from Cork bopped over to me out of the blue. He told me we were two of a dozen or so Irish people registered in the country at the time. He returned the next day with a t-shirt for the “local” GAA club that operates across several countries in the region.

The infrastructure already exists to act as a conduit between the Irish state, emigrants and employers. We should establish both a jobs and a skills database, the technology for which already exists by co-opting platforms like LinkedIn, and encourage employers to interview candidates via Skype conferences. Having hired this way, I can say with confidence that it is a robust method of interviewing for certain positions, or at least beginning a serious process with someone.

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Quite simply, it is the right thing to do

There are practical barriers for someone to return home. They need to find a place to live and get a deposit together, for one. Setting up banking can be difficult without employment and residency records in the country for a few years. Getting school places or childcare sorted can be a major headache.

It is incumbent on us to try to reduce or remove these barriers to entry, and make it attractive for employers to take these people. We could offer some of the same tax breaks to employers for hiring an emigrant as we might for hiring an unemployed person. This comes back to the short-term thinking versus long-term gain I mentioned earlier: short-term, we may end up with emigrants competing with folks on the dole at home for jobs. But long-term, bringing as many people home as possible will help sustain more growth and create more jobs in the long run.

In the Dail, TDs have a ‘one stop shop’ to help them avail of all their various allowances and expenses and perks. TDs should provide a one stop shop to emigrants that will help them connect up with schools, childcare and the other infrastructure they need to return. Banks should make it easier for people to transfer their history from abroad back to home. It’s partly their fault that these folks had to emigrate in the first place; they damn well owe it to Irish people to not stand in the way of their coming back.

We could consider ways to help emigrants financially to ease the burden of the costs of returning home, offering them a return loan that would be paid back over time via a surcharge to their income tax. This loan could help with the cost of flights, deposits and so on.

Government preferment for emigrants could involve us all shouldering some short-term sacrifice – for example if we give tax breaks to employers and people who return. But in the long run it will be to the benefit of us all to have them home. It is also, quite simply, the right thing to do.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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