Emigration in reverse: ‘Now the brains are coming back’

For the first time in a decade, more Irish are returning from abroad than are emigrating

After Sarah O’Connell graduated in June 2011 with a degree in renewable energy, the only relevant work she could find was through a JobBridge placement with Limerick County Council. She wasn’t entitled to any social welfare benefit, so to make ends meet, she took a job in a call centre.

Working 60 hours a week "for pittance" was wearing her down, so when a conversation with five friends in a similar position led to a plan to move en masse to Australia, O'Connell jumped at the chance.

“Australia could offer someone in their 20s everything that Ireland couldn’t at the time,” she says. “I travelled around Sydney, Perth, Broome and Darwin, and walked into job after job easily.”

Two years later O'Connell moved on to Christchurch in New Zealand, found a "career" job she loved as an energy adviser and decided to have a baby with her partner. "But there was always the pull of the people you left behind, and I knew the minute my daughter was born that she needed to be brought up in Ireland. Home is where the heart is for me, and I just needed to be here."


In March, O’Connell and her now two-year-old daughter arrived back to Limerick for good. She wasn’t the first of her emigrant friends to move home, and she won’t be the last, either; more of them are looking to move back to live and work here, drawn by much improved job opportunities, and a desire at this time of their lives to be closer to family in Ireland as they start families of their own.

It’s a story that will be familiar to families all across the country. When researchers from University College Cork’s Émigré project went knocking on thousands of doors in 2012, they found 17 per cent of all households had lost at least one member to emigration in the six years prior. One in three adults had an immediate relative leave.

As unemployment peaked at about 15 per cent that year, the emigration wave also reached its zenith in 2012, with a total of 83,000 people leaving Ireland, 49,700 of whom were Irish. It was the highest gross emigration figure in more than a century, up from just 36,000 of all nationalities at the height of the boom in 2006.

Escape and adventure

At the numerous working abroad recruitment fairs held around the country in those years, finance graduates lined up alongside nurses, tradesmen, accountants, teachers and engineers of all ages. Some had lost their jobs or were hanging on by a thread. Those still working were simply looking to escape the drudgery of a country mired in recession and negativity, or a bit of adventure.

Australia, Canada and New Zealand were waiting to welcome them with open arms, to fill skills and experience shortages in their hospitals, construction sites, hotels, banks, and oil and gas fields. The UK's proximity to Ireland and abundance of job opportunities across a wide range of sectors, particularly in London, ensured that the country remained the most popular destination for Irish emigrants, while new Irish communities grew in locations across the Middle East and Asia, of teachers and construction professionals in particular.

Over the past decade more than 370,000 Irish people made that move abroad. A telephone survey by Ipsos/MRBI of more than 1,000 of them for The Irish Times in 2016 revealed that the vast majority were happy in their new homes, with better job prospects, higher salaries and a better quality of living than they had had in Ireland.

The Central Statistics Office figures show the number of people at work in Ireland is now almost 20,000 higher than it was before the economic crash

But the desire to return to Ireland remained strong, even among those who were prospering overseas, with just one in five respondents to the Irish Times survey saying they didn't see themselves ever returning to live in Ireland. While family was the main motivation to come home, work opportunities and improvements in the Irish economy were significant factors they were waiting on before making the move.

Trends in economically motivated migration usually lag behind unemployment changes, so just as it took a few years for the numbers leaving to rise after the recession hit, the flow of people out of the country – both Irish and of other nationalities returning to their home countries – also took time to turn as the economy recovered and unemployment dropped.

Approaching full employment

This week, the Central Statistics Office published figures showing that the number of people at work in Ireland is now almost 20,000 higher than it was before the economic crash, and unemployment is below 6 per cent, down from a high of almost 15 per cent at the height of the recession.

At the same press briefing, a separate set of statistics showed that more Irish people are now returning to live here from abroad than are emigrating, for the first time in a decade. The numbers have finally caught up.

In the 12 months to April, the number of Irish people leaving the country dropped by 8.1 per cent to 28,300 – 100 fewer than moved home in the same period.

The Government was quick to claim both sets of figures as the recession’s final death knell.

"Nine years after the crash and the pain of forced emigration, more Irish citizens [are] now coming home than moving abroad," Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tweeted, linking to an Irish Times news report on the CSO figures on Tuesday. "We're on the right track."

Reading the figures from Melbourne this week, chief executive of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce Barry Corr was not surprised. “So many people did not come here by choice. They came knowing they wanted to go back,” he says.

“Family is the main driver for them to return now. That group that came over in their mid-20s during the recession are now getting married or have an ageing parent, or first child born or getting to school age. The life events are really important, but there’s no doubt that the opportunities in Ireland now are infinitely better than they were a few years ago.”

Hundreds of young people who participated in the chamber’s mentorship programme in Australia have since returned to Ireland, but Corr doesn’t see that as a negative.

“It has given us a critical mass of business people in Ireland who were interested in and have connections with Australian companies,” he says. “Some of them have gone back to set up an Irish branch of the company they were working for here. The economic relationship between Australia and Ireland is so much stronger, which is especially important as we move towards an Australia-EU free trade agreement.”

Youth emigration overall has seen the most significant drop. Just 12,500 people (all nationalities) in the 15-24 age group left in the year to April 2018, down from 34,500 in 2011.

The so-called brain drain, which sapped graduates from Ireland during the recession, has now reversed, with 49,300 immigrants (Irish and other nationalities) arriving with a third-level qualification, compared with 26,500 who emigrated, a net gain of 22,700 graduates. This is in stark contrast to the net loss of 13,500 third-level graduates in 2011 alone.

Lisa Holt, managing director of a number of sectors with CPL Recruitment, has seen a change in motivation among graduate job candidates, now that more options are available to them here in Ireland. Leaving to travel or work abroad straight out of college has fallen out of vogue, with more now choosing to establish their careers in Ireland first.

There are jobs now

“During the recession the opportunities weren’t there for them, so emigrating was the obvious thing to do. But there are jobs here now. We have a lot of graduates who come to work with CPL for two years and then leave to go travelling. It’s a nuisance as we lose them after we’ve trained them, but we hope they will come back, and a lot of them do,” she says.

Tightening visa rules in Australia, Canada and New Zealand have also made it more difficult for Irish workers – especially those without work experience – to secure employer sponsorship.

Holt says the talent shortage in Ireland, particularly for senior roles as the economy continues to grow, has prompted CPL clients to embark on “major online pushes to hire from abroad”.

While workers of all nationalities have been targeted for jobs in the tech sector – CPL has recently assisted with recruitment campaigns in Germany, France and Spain – returning Irish are favoured as candidates because there is no requirement on employers to sponsor them for a visa.

Matching salaries to what candidates are earning overseas is a significant problem for Irish employers

“One of our clients is hiring a lot of people from abroad now, all via Skype. They aren’t even meeting people; the talent shortage is such a huge problem for them,” she says.

“We are seeing a lot of talent moving home from the UK, which started around the time of the Brexit vote. There is a lot of concern, especially among workers in financial services.”

Irish workers overseas are also more actively searching for jobs in Ireland, too.

Matching salaries to what candidates are earning overseas is a significant problem for Irish employers, but Holt says about 50 per cent of Irish candidates currently working abroad are motivated to return not by the job opportunity, but for family reasons. They are usually willing to take the hit in salary, which she estimates to be 10-30 per cent.

History repeating itself

While the net migration milestone among Irish citizens has been welcomed universally by organisations and individuals working with emigrants, both in Ireland and abroad, the net inflow of just 100 Irish people last year is not as wide as some had expected. With one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe, and an unemployment rate below 6 per cent, why did 28,300 Irish people still emigrate last year?

"It has never been the case that emigration from Ireland goes down to zero when the economy is doing well," says Alan Barrett of the Economic and Social Research Institute. "This is just history repeating itself. Younger Irish people in particular seem to get it that if you live on a small island on the edge of Europe, it is good for you professionally and personally to do the travel thing. Irish people, even when there are loads of jobs here, are eager to do that."

The Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce is continuing to welcome newly arrived Irish professionals. Australia will always be a popular destination for Irish people, Barry Corr says, no matter the economic circumstances.

“Those who are still arriving are what I term the global Irish: young Irish professionals who are globally mobile, and will look for opportunities on a global basis at a particular time in their career. Some are specifically seeking overseas experience with a view to going back to Ireland, to give them an edge in the Irish job market,” he says.

“We are also seeing a resurgence of people coming over for lifestyle reasons, just like I did before the recession with my young family.”

While Marie-Claire McAleer agrees that young people will continue to take advantage of career and life opportunities the rest of the world offers no matter how good the economy is in Ireland, there are more complex factors at play that are still resulting in “forced” emigration, particularly among young people who simply can’t afford to stay living here any more.

“Despite economic progress of recent years, the outlook for some young people living in Ireland remains challenging,” she says.

“While more jobs are available, often these are low-paid, precarious in nature, with poor conditions of employment and lack of security. Accessing quality employment opportunities with decent salaries and career progression options remains difficult for many young workers.”

Temporary work

A National Youth Council of Ireland poll of young adults aged 18-29 undertaken by Red C last year showed that, despite the increase in employment, 38 per cent of those surveyed were on temporary employment contracts, with just over a third working part-time.

“Accessing quality affordable housing is also a challenge. With soaring rental costs to contend with in the private sector, the cost of renting is extremely prohibitive for young people on low incomes.”

The Government is continuing to sleep-walk its way through the perpetuation of an unequal society here

Piaras Mac Éinrí, a migration academic at University College Cork who led the Émigré project in 2013, agrees.

“It is probably no coincidence that the educational level of returning migrants nowadays is at an all-time high. Those who have more a more modest professional status and earning potential abroad are less likely to return than those who can expect to benefit from an economy which is recovering but in an uneven way.

“If they do return they will have to deal with employment [precariousness], spiralling housing costs, childcare costs and a health system in permanent crisis – the latter hardly an attractive option for those who could not afford private health insurance,” he says.

“Add to that the various other ways in which obstacles are placed in the way of the return migrant – car insurance costs for instance – and it cannot really be said that the Government is making serious efforts to attract people home again.”

Unequal Ireland

So will the trend of Irish emigrants returning continue? Mac Éinrí is not hopeful.

“The Government is continuing to sleep-walk its way through the perpetuation of an unequal society here. This is likely to mean that those who left and who would like to return are increasingly less likely to do so unless they have the kind of skills and earning power which place them in among the more advantaged of the emigration generation since 2008.”

Alan Barrett of the ESRI believes the inward and outward flows of migrants – both Irish and other nationalities – in response to economic changes usually balance out between boom to bust economic cycles.

“It is a terrible thing on an individual level when people are forced to emigrate, but the historical experience was that these people were going to come back. The big concern when the recession hit was the scarring effect of long-term unemployment on the individual. Long career breaks can be very damaging; when they return to work, their wages may never recover.

“But this cohort of Irish people was very sensible; rather than staying here and waiting for the economy to improve while out of work, they left. If they didn’t come back, yes, that would be a big loss, but now the brains are coming back, and they are new and improved.”

With a very significant rise in the net inflow of immigrants from other countries – up from 23,200 in 2016/17 to 33,900 in the 12 months to April – the Irish population increased by 64,500. It now stands at an estimated 4.86 million, 12.2 per cent of whom are non-Irish nationals.

“Ireland is one of the fastest-growing countries now,” Barrett says. “Precisely the nationality of who is coming or going doesn’t matter.”