Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

How can Ireland attract emigrants back?

Economic recovery requires pool of educated and skilled young people to attract investment and sustain growth

Mon, Sep 1, 2014, 07:40


Marie-Claire McAleer

Despite a slight drop in the numbers leaving the country in search of work abroad last year, youth emigration of highly-skilled and highly educated young Irish people continues at very high levels. Amidst growing international competition for particular skills, how can we incentivise return migration to Ireland in the future and reduce the risk of a permanent loss of valuable qualified young workers from the Irish labour market?

Last year, the National Youth Council of Ireland published research on the experience and impact of youth emigration from Ireland. The “Time to Go?” study identified the reasons young people are leaving Ireland. Many were moving abroad to experience new horizons and access greater opportunities. They also cited limited employment options and lack of prospects at home as a determining factor prompting their decision to leave.

Interestingly, and perhaps more heartening, was the finding in the study that the vast majority of young emigrants expressed the intention and desire to return home after a period of time, provided they could get a job. Of those who wished to return home in the next five years, they aspired to return to an Ireland that could offer them better opportunities and work in their chosen career. They also felt the Government needed to plan for the future and provide incentives to attract them back to Ireland.

One of the positive aspects of emigration is that many young people who go abroad to work acquire skills, knowledge and capital. The improved skills and expertise they gain has the potential to provide a significant return to the Irish State, and this needs to be recognised and harnessed. As the Irish economy starts to show signs of recovery, the Government needs to focus on how to support and facilitate young Irish emigrants to return when there are jobs in the Irish labour market.

The prevalence of large-scale emigration of young people produces a significant loss to the State in terms of the public funds invested in the education system, and the brain drain of highly-skilled and highly educated people. The CSO population and migration estimates published this week reaffirm that this is precisely what is happening. The number of young people emigrating aged 15 to 24 may have dropped slightly in the 12 months to April, but a significant 33,500 people in this age bracket (Irish and foreign nationals) left the country in this period. Around 47 per cent of all emigrants were third-level graduates, and the majority of those leaving in the last year were either employed or students prior to leaving.

Furthermore, in the last year there has been a decline in the number of Irish nationals returning to Ireland. These figures raise a number of interesting and challenging questions for policy-makers to consider.

Need to facilitate return

Maximising the rate of return of the current wave of young Irish emigrants when the economy starts to improve is critical. As NYCI’s research highlights, failure to attract young emigrants back in the future has serious social and economic policy implications for Ireland. The social cost of emigration is reflected in terms of the impact on the family, the impact of an alteration in Ireland’s age structure, and the emergence of a youth generation gap.

The percentage of young people in the 15 to 29 age cohort has already fallen from 23.1 per cent in 2009 to 18 per cent in 2014. If this age alteration isn’t reversed it creates difficulties for many aspects of Irish social policy in the future, for example in terms of lost revenue to pay for public services, future care provision for an aging population, and pensions.

In economic terms, return migration will help to play a significant role in the recovery of Ireland’s economy. Such investment makes economic sense and is vital for future economic growth and for the social fabric of Irish society. Any future upturn in the economy requires a pool of well-educated and skilled young people to attract investment and stimulate and sustain economic growth.

As the OECD cautioned in a report published last year, Ireland should not be complacent when it comes to return migration. International competition to attract workers with specialised skills has grown significantly. The automatic return of migrant workers should not be taken for granted.

It is vital that the state develops a long-term plan which is responsive to changes in migration and demography, and responsive to the needs of the new wave of young Irish emigrants by facilitating their return to Ireland in the future.

Marie-Claire McAleer is senior research and policy officer at the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI), and author of ‘Creating a Future for Young Jobseekers’ and ‘Time to Go?’ NYCI is hosting a conference exploring the issue of Return Migration in Dublin Castle on Tuesday 16th September 2014.