Let's bring back the boys (and girls)

June 23rd, 2008

Farewell to our kidsIf we really wanted them back, we’d do something about it.  Everyone always says they’re leaving by the carload, our best and brightest, and we’ll never get them back.

We’re tried silly things like parties, websites and clubby chat rooms.  But for the most part we’ve been unable to get them to come back, with all the damage that does to our demographic.

The longer they stay away, the less likely it is that they’ll return.  They finish school, get jobs, get married, have kids, and make a life.  Can you blame them?   Do you think they’re going to drop all that and come back midcourse?  Lots of luck.

But there is something we can do about it – that should come as no surprise – if you really want to do something about this sort of relentless brain drain loss, all you to do is bear down, spend some money and make some sacrifices and, lo and behold, you can.

A few years ago, an expatriate Chinese scientist in New Jersey was wooed back by the Chinese government.  They offered him what they knew would appeal to him most of all, the trappings of science itself – a laboratory and research money and laboratory staff galore in China.  He succumbed easily, and back to China he went to take the prize.

It’s not hard to do that, and certainly worth it – scientists, after all, come with high leverage.  No one knows what great things this guy will do for China now.  His work there could be, probably will be, worth far more than the cost of repatriating him.

So how about repatriating our departed boys and girls, the ones who left because they saw brighter future on the mainland than in Hawaii?  Because their teachers and parents and friends all inculcated in them the notion that the best thing they could to was to follow their peers and go to the mainland for a better life than they could have in Hawaii.

In fact, we have a good life here – it’s just hard to overcome the mainland sirens, as in Odysseus.  We can’t just ask them to plug their ears.  It takes a meaningful incentive to bring them back.  So why don’t we bite the bullet and pay the price of that incentive and bring our best and brightest back home to help us build a future for our state.  We need them more than we can say.  What are we waiting for?

How do we do this?  By the same kind of incentive you would always use – economics mixed with career satisfaction.  Just like the Chinese scientist.  You pay their way.  You give them a free ticket.  You get them a great job and salary, appropriate to their skill.  You help them buy or mortgage a house, or you rent one to/for them cheap for x years.  You excuse them from state income tax for x years.  You offer them free courses at the University to advance their professional training.  You tell them you love them, you make them feel good about themselves and their choice of returning.  Priceless.

You give them bus passes, and opera seats.  You give them memberships at the “Y”.  In short, you do everything you can.  You make them feel like returning heroes.  You target them singly, expatriate by expatriate, or you do it in groups.  You can fix these incentives in concrete or you can change the benefits and quotas every year depending on the need for skilled workers in that sector.  It’s like the HOT lane – computer driven – you adjust things depending on the need, you adapt the supply to the market place.

Are we doing this now?  Not a chance, but we need to.

You can, in fact, for a controlled and predictable budget, bring back as many pau hana expatriates as you need.  You target them, you incentivize them, you make them offers they can’t refuse and, if they do refuse, you sweeten the deal until it’s completely irresistable.

They say providing a skilled workforce is the trick to building a tech industry.  If you want to build that industry, you have to provide the workforce, however difficult that may be.  Well, we can do it.  All we have to is design a system to focus on it.  This is the way to our future, and theirs, and their families.  Let’s not waste a minute – we can’t afford to keep on losing them, we need to stem the tide right now and get them back here post haste.

Those who would oppose this will say, “why spend our money on bringing these kids back – they’ll come back when they're ready.  Why should we give them special treatment?  And if they don’t come back, that’s their problem".  I don’t agree.  That kind of attitude will isolate us from our own children.  This problem is our problem and it’s serious.  We’re got to take charge or our collective destiny, or we will surely be the Sahara of the Beaux Arts (as from H.L. Mencken), and of the Sciences too.

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