Hannah Durack was so certain she was only coming back to Australia for a short trip that she left her New York apartment entirely untouched.
“I threw out the milk, I asked a friend to pop over and water the plants now and then, but I did literally nothing else to the apartment because I knew that we were coming back,” she said.
“I was wrong.”
That was at the end of March, as the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe but took a particular stranglehold on New York City.
Hannah worked at the Mellon Foundation, the largest funder of arts and culture in the US, where she ran the dance and theatre program and worked with a pool of about $US70 million each year.
She had been overseas for 11 years by this point, and was a leader in her field.
But the toll of the pandemic on New York, coupled with a family health scare in Queensland, prompted her to come back for what was supposed to be a short stint to ride it out.
Then the pandemic worsened, border closures came in, and suddenly Hannah found herself packing up the apartment via FaceTime.
She stayed with the Mellon Foundation, working remotely from Australia and starting at 4:00am to align with US time zones.
But last week she called time, wrapping up her job there and turning her mind to what Australia now had to offer, and what she could bring to the arts scene here.
“Today, I’m feeling excited about it,” she said.
Hannah’s story is repeated as almost 400,000 Australians return from abroad during the pandemic.
The influx, coupled with almost no-one leaving the country, is prompting government and business leaders to hope for a kind of “reverse brain drain” of skilled professionals that could bolster the economy and even help lead a post-COVID recovery.
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The golden opportunity
Research into Australians returning, conducted by Advance, an organisation that helps Aussies move and work overseas, has found many were driven by the view the country was handling the pandemic better than others.
Advance CEO Maria MacNamara said this presented Australia with the “single greatest opportunity” to lure back the sort of highly-skilled workers the country needed.
“If we can retain them by offering them enough opportunities, it goes to addressing the skills gap and it allows us to accelerate our plans for the reshaping of our economy,” she said.
“They act as a bridge to global markets when you can’t travel. They’ve got the networks overseas.
“Suddenly, you’re fuelling the innovation ecosystem in a way that that you couldn’t have before.”
Advance has launched a survey of Australian professionals who have returned to the country, as well as those who have remained abroad.
It’s still running, but early findings from almost 1,000 respondents show Australia’s reputation as “COVID-safe” was a driving consideration for people to come back.
“We’ve seen quite a number come home from New York, for instance — that got really hard for them,” Ms MacNamara said.
“They were stuck at home with their children in a flat, unable to go anywhere. And when the jobs started to disappear, it made the decision very, very simple.”
Then there were others who found the pandemic forced a rapid reassessment of priorities.
Among those was Jackie Lee-Joe, who, until recently, was Netflix’s global chief marketing officer.
Jackie had spent the better part of the last 20 years overseas, rising to the senior role at the streaming giant and splitting her time between Los Angeles, where she worked, and with her family in Sydney.
“I was actually inadvertently in Australia in mid-March for what was supposed to be a one-week holiday to celebrate my wedding anniversary,” she said.
“And of course, that weekend it all went to panic stations in California … and by the end of the week, the borders were closed in Australia.”
With the plan of seamlessly travelling back and forth now closed off, Jackie was faced with a choice: stay in Sydney or try to relocate her husband and three boys to the US.
She chose Australia, and in July left her role at Netflix.
“I would really hope that I’d be able to bring that knowledge and that experience back to Australia and find new stories to write over here,” she said.
“To just see whether I can be part of pooling that talent and growing some of that knowledge and for companies to be able to leverage that knowledge.”
‘Why would I rush back?’
Not every Australian has come home, however, highlighting the enduring appeal of working abroad.
Overseas travel has exploded in the last generation, going from 2 million trips in 1990 to almost 12 million last year.
At any given time, about 1 million Australians live and work overseas, meaning the majority of those who were abroad before the pandemic have chosen to stay away.
Among them is Chris Micallef, a senior manager at a global big four accounting firm, based in New York City.
Chris moved overseas in 2015, so for him the US is now home.
“I did think about coming back, but given my career is based in New York and trying to do New York hours in Australia would be pretty difficult, I thought it was best to stick around,” he said.
“And New York is the financial centre of the world, so I can’t think of a better place to work to get better experiences and try my luck.”
Chris said most Australians he knew chose to stay overseas, with the ones returning being those in less secure work or who hadn’t been abroad very long.
His experience reflects another finding from the Advance survey: those who are choosing to stay overseas have already been gone for at least four years.
It’s a similar story for Andrew Szczepanski, a business manager at a global engineering company based in San Diego.
He too considered coming back, having been overseas for the past six years, but quickly dismissed the thought.
And he said despite the significant toll coronavirus had taken on the US, the experience of living through it wasn’t as bad as outsiders may believe.
“It doesn’t feel that crazy,” he said.
“It’s not like you see people drop dead in the streets.
“The thing is, when it first hit, it was worse in Australia than over here. I saw people posting online that toilet paper was gone off the shelf and that kind of stuff, but we still had toilet paper here.
“So why would I rush back to Australia where I can’t buy toilet paper?”
Government to headhunt professionals
The Advance survey findings so far show a notable mix of fortunes for those who have returned in the past six months.
Of the respondents so far:
- 27 per cent have found new work
- 15 per cent are building their own business
- 12 per cent are working remotely for the same company they were with abroad
- 10 per cent transferred to their Australian head offices
Ms MacNamara said unfortunately many were still looking for work, and their experience reflected an uncomfortable truth: returned expats overwhelmingly struggle in their careers upon return.
Separate research by Advance, done shortly before the pandemic, found 85 per cent of returned expats reported having trouble finding work, while 83 per cent of local recruiters said they were cautious about recommending expats.
“Their biggest challenge remains establishing a local professional network and breaking into the Australian business community,” Ms MacNamara said.
She added it wasn’t for lack of effort, and that Australian companies would do well to tap the talent pool.
“They are really keen to share ideas and opportunities on the global stage,” she said.
“Those companies that are high growth, scale-ups, that are looking for a bridge to international markets, working with people with global experience, suddenly have access to them.”
Tapping this international market is something the Federal Government appears keenly aware of.
This month, it announced it was trying to leverage the upheaval caused by the pandemic to lure the best of global business to Australia.
It has created a new taskforce it says will operate like a “strike team” to “turbocharge” the economy and headhunt individuals and companies that would be a good fit.
The initial focus will be on three sectors: advanced manufacturing, financial services, and health.
The Government says the idea isn’t to parachute in workers from abroad to fill existing roles, but to have them come and create new branches or operations, and therefore jobs for Australians.
“We will highlight to global businesses that our overall economic management and handling of the COVID-19 pandemic strengthens our reputation as a stable and attractive investment destination,” Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said.
“With one in 10 jobs already supported by foreign direct investment, boosting investment and getting more global businesses to set up shop here will help drive more jobs and opportunities for Australians.”
Exactly how returned Australian expats fit into that model remains to be seen.
As does whether long-gone Australians will be tempted back by the country’s COVID-safe reputation as the pandemic drags on.