EMPLOYMENT: by Warren ReedNews Weekly
Offshore assets most Australians never see
, September 29, 2007
Increasing numbers of talented young Australians are heading off overseas in search of more fulfilling careers. Warren Reed reports.One of Australia's greatest achievements over the past 40 years has been the creation of a sizeable body of talented people who work at the coalface in Asia.
They're in demand because of their skills, whether linguistic or professional, and often it's a combination of both. Added to that is the fact that Australians are generally well regarded for their commonsense and their capacity to get on with people from other cultures.
All of this has been the result of a forward-looking Asian studies program in schools and universities, backed by government funding. But no longer.
The funding was cut back a few years ago, and interest among young people has waned. They're aware now that it won't be easy to pick up a job here. Educational institutions have had to reduce their courses accordingly.
This is a tragedy for Australia, especially in an area where we've proved we excel.Career
Outstanding skill in written and spoken Chinese won't win you a Brownlow Medal or Olympic gold, but it can land you a good job in some Asian countries.
And it's not just with multinationals that feel more at ease employing fellow Westerners. More and more, it's with Asian corporations operating on a global stage. Salaries are frequently much higher than in Australia, and tax can be ridiculously low. There's also a widely held respect for those who can cross cultural divides with pragmatism and effectiveness. Not so here, where you're often seen as having "gone troppo".
Many thousands of Australians have ventured into Asia in successive waves and increasingly are staying there. With prospects good for future growth and expansion, why would you consider coming home? Because of the smog in regional capitals, you might say, or for fear of tainted food products in China.
Yes, such things certainly register, but they're not enough to drive people back. For most, Australia's sun and surf provide scant competition for the sort of professional challenge and intellectual stimulation that Asia offers.
Recently in Sydney, I had the pleasure of meeting up with a 26-year-old Australian who currently occupies the same research position in a major Asian university that I held over 30 years ago. That was in international law and politics. He was back on a brief visit to his hometown.
"Most Australians of my generation who are offshore," he said, "are still emotionally attached to this place. Like me, they read Australian newspapers online to keep up with what's happening. But what you see rarely makes you want to rush back. I'll probably stay in that Northern Hemisphere slipstream for the rest of my life."
Talking to another young Australian in Asia, I found the same reaction. She's involved in the resources trade.
"It's not that government in Asia is more responsible," she said. "It's generally far worse. But things are happening in the region and you're part of it. You feel you're afloat on a fast-moving historical river. You're part of the action and that's exciting.
"I've worked hard to position myself like this, and I'm not going to give up lightly what I've achieved. What Canberra's doing for Aborigines and the Murray River won't influence me. It's the current account deficit that no one takes seriously and the 60-odd ships standing off Newcastle waiting to load coal for Chinese customers that sway me."
It's sobering to speculate on where we might be in 20 years when China and India may be leading in cutting-edge research and development. They may also be way out ahead in other areas. Many younger Japanese, for example, have shunned the security of lifetime employment and instead opted for the tenuous, but more creative, fields of arts, fashion, music and design.
Imagine the scale of a Chinese contribution on that front. It could swallow up much of the next generation of Australians in search of an exciting career.
And China doesn't have to wait. With the world's biggest foreign exchange reserves, now at $1.3 trillion, it can buy into the companies whose skills and talents it needs.
With younger Australians willing to adapt to different thought patterns, languages and lifestyles, we may find that our ageing society isn't our only problem. We might hollow out at the same time: growing old at one end and being intellectually depleted at the other. What we do about all this is a real challenge.
For those of us who were part of that exciting Asian studies process decades ago, we never imagined things would end up like this. We envisaged the experience and contacts we developed locking Australia into the region from a stronger home base. No one imagined that base moving permanently offshore.- Warren Reed, a former chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), has spent much of his working life in Asia. He started off as a scholarship student in Japan.