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Should the Aussie brain drain to Silicon Valley be encouraged?

George Nott | July 27, 2016
Australians gaining experience, innovating and growing businesses overseas is good for the nation...if they ever come back

Barely a month goes by without news of yet another Aussie who has made it big in Silicon Valley: Fintech start-up Credible, Bitcoin wallet Snapcard, indoor locationing innovator Navisens to name but a few.

The phenomenon of Australia's best minds leaving these shores for the US - the so-called 'brain drain' - is a cause of serious concern among the local tech community. It's "completely and utterly a disaster" according to fintech chief Jost Stollmann of Tyro Payments. It's "an absolute crisis" said CEO Matt Barrie in April.

"There is still... a massive talent drain issue that needs to be addressed," says LinkedIn Australia's MD Clifford Rosenberg. "Much of the world-class talent that we do create is migrating to other countries to seek better opportunities."

At last count, 2,300 ICT workers left Australia for employment overseas. People with STEM degrees are also leaving Australia in significant numbers, according to LinkedIn figures.

Demand outweighs supply and the imbalance is growing every day. The gap is currently being filled by foreign workers, with around 22,000 arriving to work in ICT occupations in the 2014/15 financial year.

The government has acted to "get the skills that businesses need now" by setting aside $2 million in its Innovation Agenda to 'refine visa settings'. But with more companies embarking on major digital transformations both here and overseas this may be a case of too little too late. And the rising living costs in tech hubs like Sydney put potential senior candidates off, says Atlassian's Mike Cannon-Brookes.

"There is a lot of talk about the lack of tech talent in Australia, and quite rightly so," says Suzanne Gerrard, director of IT recruitment agency Greythorn Australia. "As technology continues to infiltrate every business and sector, the need to have skilled staff to drive transformation projects as well as business as usual application of tech, continues to grow."

But is the problem really as bad as some say? Has the 'brain drain' been overstated? Perhaps Aussies abandoning their homeland for Silicon Valley is a good thing for the country?

Aussie mafia

"I don't see it as a huge issue. If anything, it should be encouraged," says Australian Andrew Roberts. "An active expat community helps Australia and Australian companies."

Roberts is CEO of Silicon Valley-based Ephox, who provide WYSIWYG editing and content creation SDKs. He moved from Brisbane to the US to be closer to the company's biggest customers. With a competitor gaining market share he "felt we were missing out" by not being in the US, plus he adds: "like many young Australians, I wanted to live and work overseas for a while".


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