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Massey Magazine Issue 13 November 2002

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The "big OE" -- is it draining our talent: Kerr Inkson, Professor of Management at the Albany Campus, explains new research.

The "Brain Drain" has suddenly caught the public imagination. With patriotism, and the future of New Zealand involved, the issue captures our emotions. Richard Poole and his group of young New Zealanders arouse concern about our country's welfare; the other young New Zealanders who wrote to the Herald in response restore some of our faith in the desirability of "life in New Zealand". Which group has the more important message?

There are political agendas muddying the picture, too. What are we to make of Mr. Poole's appeal for a change in economic direction? It could mean a rolling-back of State intervention, the reduction of welfare and taxation to give business and enterprise more opportunity to offer incentives for young talent. Equally, it could mean more State, more "Bright Futures" scholarships for top minds, more "picking winners" for Government subsidy, more joint ventures between Government and private enterprise.

We can"t make too much of the immigration/emigration statistics either. We can tell how many people are leaving and how many returning, but we don"t know why. Is it student loans, poor salaries, or lack of career opportunities that keeps young New Zealanders from returning? Is it the high quality of life, or family ties, or the "great place to bring up kids" feeling that brings them back? Different commentators advance all these theories, but the only evidence they tend to offer is anecdotal. Until we can answer some of the questions, we are not in a good position to figure out policies to deal with the issues.

Recently I have been working with colleagues to research "the Kiwi OE". In a paper in the 1997 Journal of World Business we suggested that OE, because of its essential open-endedness, is a good analogue for twenty-first century careers, and therefore a good means of developing young people with a varied experience, flexibility, and self-confidence. However, our work was theoretical, and supported only by case study examples.

More recently, with Barbara Myers of Auckland University of Technology, I have conducted a more detailed study based on narrative accounts of OE experience by 39 young New Zealanders who undertook an OE of at least 6 months in recent years. We reported some preliminary results at the British Academy of Management Annual Conference in Edinburgh in August.

The results are instructive, but bear in mind that we surveyed only travellers who had returned.

Our results showed:

As one might expect, OE is apparently undertaken mainly by educated people, in managerial, professional, and service occupations. Nearly half those we located had degree qualifications, and another quarter had some tertiary education. None had come from a trade, agricultural, or manual background.

Most OE experiences take place in people's early or middle twenties, the median age on departure being 25. This is related in part to the age-limit of 28 on "working holiday" visas for New Zealanders in the UK.

The main motives to do OE are non-career motives, mainly the general desire to 'see the world", "experience other cultures", etc. Secondary themes were those of escape, e.g. "New Zealand seemed dull", "get away from a boring job", and change, e.g. "Be somewhere different", "change my routines". Not one traveller mentioned student loans, though most of these journeys were undertaken a few years ago, before student loans became the issue they are today.

*There are strong social pressures to do OE. These come largely from friends and parents many parents have themselves done an OE in their time, and friends are constantly leaving for, and returning from, overseas.

Most travellers drastically underestimate the time they will spend on OE. Our sample members on average said that they had planned to be away from New Zealand for less than two years. The actual time away was anything up to eight years, with an average of four years. And of course our study considered only those who had returned. It seems that OE is seductive.

Some travellers had returned from their second OE. Typically, the first was largely exploratory, and the second conducted with much more specific career objectives in mind.

Travellers were unanimously positive in their evaluation of OE. Typically, they said that the experience had boosted their self-reliance and self-esteem, helped their interpersonal and communications skills, made them more open-minded, more tolerant of other cultures, and more independent and flexible all big advantages in today's economy.

By contrast, specific career skills were less in evidence in travellers" comments, though computer, sales, teaching, and technical skills were mentioned by some.

Even though some OE travellers had experienced substantial deprivation, e.g. periods of unemployment, living in 'squats", there was virtually no negative comment on OE as an overall experience. Even deprivation, shocking experiences in Third World countries etc. were viewed as ultimately beneficial to the traveller.

We also surveyed the "returning to New Zealand" process. Why do people come back to New Zealand, and how do their lives and careers proceed after return? These are data we have yet to analyse in detail, but we have a general impression that many found it was "time" to come home, or were homesick, or returned because of a change or crisis in family circumstances.

The positive picture our research paints of OE leads us to echo the Prime Minister's comments that she wants young New Zealanders to go overseas, but she also wants them to return. OE can thus be viewed as an efficient way of enabling people to develop their "career capital" of motivations, attitudes, experience, skills, and networks so that they return to New Zealand as greater potential assets than they were when they went away. The message about OE to our young people is clear: DO IT!

Such an interpretation calls into question the value of such policies as "Bright Futures" scholarships, which seem to be aimed at encouraging our brightest and best to remain in New Zealand rather than undertaking an important life-changing and human capital-developing experience which incurs no expense to the New Zealand State. What about diverting some of the "Bright Futures" money into encouraging return?

But I return to my initial point. We know little about those who return. We know even less about those who don"t return. Research is badly needed.

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