3 Feb 2022

Covid-19: Overseas travel tempts young New Zealanders despite ongoing pandemic

9:14 am on 3 February 2022

There is concern New Zealand's pandemic-driven brain gain of skilled workers is turning into a "brain drain" as young people head overseas.

Asian young woman traveller wearing face maks using mobile phone at airport Due Covid-19 flu virus pandemic and protection

New Zealand's already tight labour market could be affected further if young people depart, an economist says. Photo: 123RF

Those spoken to by RNZ were sick of waiting for the pandemic to end and prepared to roll the dice with Covid-19.

Provisional migration figures from Stats NZ show there have been more people leaving the country year-on-year than arriving each month since April 2021.

The most recent figures were a net loss of 4000 people in the year to November.

Adam Dyhrberg is a lawyer who moved to Melbourne with his partner that month.

Factored into the couple's decision was the cost of living: although rent was similar to that in Wellington, they found it more affordable because of higher incomes in Australia.

They also wanted to "try out a bigger market" to advance their careers but Dyhrberg admitted there was also a "level of impatience".

"I got a bit sick of being ... sort of stuck in New Zealand for so long," he said. "After a while you just think 'there are people travelling, that avenue is open, I'm just going to do it'."

Airport traveller

File photo. Photo: Photo by Erik Odiin on Unsplash

Engineer Gabi Steer has moved to the UK where Covid-19 case numbers are currently worse than when she first arrived in September.

"No one can predict what's going to happen in the future and you can just end up waiting, waiting, waiting," she said.

Steer knew some people had done that, but she and her partner "decided we don't want to waste our lives just waiting".

Other factors were the age restrictions on her visa (the UK's Youth Mobility Scheme is only open to people aged 18 to 30) and a study opportunity presented to her partner.

It was clear some people's desire for an overseas experience was stronger than the idea of waiting out the pandemic and they were also banking on border restrictions easing soon.

Similar feelings were held by those planning to leave, like Tayla, who only wanted to use her first name for this story.

She is a teacher and recently signed a contract to work in Malaysia for two years.

Living and teaching overseas had always been on the cards for her and her partner but the various lockdowns and restrictions over the past two years had made things "a bit tricky".

"We've kind of just decided, well, if not now, when is it going to happen?"

Tayla said the ongoing pandemic made the decision to leave "a bit scarier", but she ultimately felt like the "grass was greener" elsewhere when she looked at the teaching opportunities and the cost of living here.

Impact on economy, productivity

Infometrics principal economist Brad Olsen was worried a "brain drain could see New Zealand's already tight labour market and intense skill shortages be exacerbated" - stymieing economic growth and limiting the country's productivity.

Olsen said the country would have to work "incredibly hard" to keep talent onshore - especially nurses and construction workers.

The National Party's immigration and education spokesperson, Erica Stanford, said "there's definitely a problem".

She was focused on the "huge pressure" some sectors, like nursing, were under and how that might coincide with an "exodus of young people".

A brain drain "will hit us hard", Stanford said. "And I think it will probably hit us more quickly than we think."

"Once the borders open, and if we don't do something to keep our talented people here, I think they will leave quite quickly."

RNZ asked the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment if it was concerned about a possible brain drain.

Migration manager David Peterson said it was difficult to predict future migration patterns and they would likely depend on any changes to border settings.

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