Boomerang boom or brain drain: Will Irish youths emigrating to Oz stay or go?

Singer Brian McFadden leads a steady stream of Irish imports.

Sydney in February displayed in full technicolor what is one of the big stories in Ireland - the latest phase of our history of being an emigrant race.

As we walked around the city, stopped for coffee or lunch, or traversed our way past roadworks in our rental car, familiar accents surrounded us at every turn.

Even our first cafe in Canberra was managed by a recently arrived Irishman - and there are only 20 of them in the ACT in any one year!

Ireland had been a big contributor to Australian’s population growth since the 19th century. The combination of push and pull factors that underpin how economists model migration are borne out in the history of Irish migration to Australia - from the assisted passage eras through to the smart yuppie Irish of the late 80’s and early 90’s.

It is unquestionably the case that Ireland is experiencing a new phase of migration.

The outward migration of the Irish has doubled to over 30,000 between 2006 and 2010, or about 1% of the workforce. This figure is projected to be closer to 50,000 in 2011, with the bulk coming from the 20 to 35 age group.

As a percentage of the workforce this is not too far out of line with the experiences of Ireland in the 1980s or earlier - what is unusual is the rapidity with which this has changed with most of the increase happening since the dramatic worsening of the Irish economy in 2009.

Moreover, Australia is perhaps now disproportionately one of the key destinations. The figures going to the United States are almost unchanged. In effect the Irish are going to the UK, Canada and Australia in larger numbers, with the percentages going to the latter two doubling.

Unfortunately we don’t have, in an easily sourced format, the breakdown of this data by key demographics like educational background or occupation.

But if I return to my recent trip, on reflection it struck me that the familiar accents were all in service or construction roles - waiting tables, staffing bars, working on sites, in the hotels.

When you chatted, nobody seemed to be planning too far into the future in either Australia or Ireland. They were not settling down, forming families - they were having fun by and large. When I sat down in the boardrooms of agencies like COAG, DPMC or the universities I was visiting, I was meeting many familiar names of Irish origin but the accents were well and truly Australian.

What is different on the Australian side is the far more structured migration process - visa types, guidelines, preferred skills etc.

The bottom line is that Australia is now clear about what it wants - the process is more demand led than supply led. This is not the era of assisted passage, of driving population growth.

What is different about the Irish side I have already alluded to - the rapidity of change suggests that we are dealing primarily with the immediately displaced as a result of the economic collapse: construction, semi-skilled service sector, perhaps newly minted graduates who are looking for a challenge or a deferred gap year.

The numbers imply temporary visitor visas and working holidays are driving this group. Few are in training, many are in relatively unskilled employment. This is not a group looking, initially, at making a life in Australia. The are mobile, move about, most likely spending as much as they earn in a relatively footloose fashion.

And they will have to return to Ireland. Relatively soon.

This is not a focus of attention in Ireland - and it will need to be and quickly. There are anecdotes that suggest that Ireland has a relatively fit and healthy older population because we exported so many of the now unhealthier Irish during their 20s to London building sites and south Boston railyards.

This is not the case with this recent outflow. What is problematic is that they do not appear to be gaining much more than experience of life, and have not gained much more on their CV over what was there when they left for Australia.

Ireland must not ignore this group as perhaps we have ignored our older diaspora, and needs to plan for a potential flow back to Ireland of individuals.

It is not clear that this is the case - in fact it could be said that mass emigration is almost factored in as an assumption of the economic recovery model through acting as a vent for unemployment.

This underlying story may be changing. The Irish are now the third largest migrant group in absolute terms for employer sponsored (457) visas, and proportional to our population by a large way the biggest migrant group in this category.

Ireland is sending about one-third the total numbers the UK is sending - with 20 times the population! More Irish are arriving on 457s then the total from the entire rest of the European continent.

The increase in this number year on year is about one-third more than the increase of UK or other Europeans, so the share is growing.

This suggests that the pattern of migration is settling back into the pattern experienced many times over Ireland’s history - exporting skilled employees across all areas of demand for the Australian job market. A good old fashioned “brain drain” in other words.

My hunch is that the Irish economic experience of the past two years - and the likely future for the country with a Latin-American style sovereign default on the cards - will radically change the role that these migrants can play in recovery.

In fact, they won’t have a role - their lives are, for the foreseeable future, in their adopted country. This may be the first Irish migrant cohort to Australia who won’t be looking over their shoulders at the old country, won’t have the sense of attachment that previous generations held.

This also makes them an incredibly important cohort to study. If I can make one appeal, I would urge the very many successful Irish-Australians - or even Irish in Australia - to consider endowing the costs of capturing the experiences of this group through research and understanding the life trajectory of this group compared to those that came before them, and those that remained in Ireland.