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Turning SA's brain drain into a brain gain

Opinion

With the pandemic taking the gloss off big cities, talented young South Australians are looking to return home. Keeping them here, and giving others incentive to stay through economic development and social innovation, must be an imperative for government and business policy, argues Allyson Hewitt.

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From 2017 to 2019, the Don Dunstan Foundation hosted the re-invigorated Thinkers in Residence program.

Entitled the “Social Capital Residency”, the goal was to enable South Australia to lead the country in creating jobs that both contribute to the economy and create social and environmental impact. These “purpose economy” jobs were, in fact, the fastest-growing sector in South Australia.

Since we ended the residencies, our world has changed significantly. COVID-19 has brought to light our vulnerabilities and has challenged our economy in ways we could barely imagine. While we are seeing, and will continue to see, the impact from this global pandemic for many years to come, we should remember that along with challenges, crises also bring opportunities.

One such opportunity is to reverse the recent ‘brain-drain’, i.e. the loss of the best and brightest to other corners of the world. Deloitte’s Make it big Adelaide report notes that “anyone with a good idea will leave” and that there are fewer people aged between 15 and 34 years living in South Australia than there were in the mid-1980s.

But we have an opportunity to reverse this exodus, with a natural “brain-gain” happening as COVID-19 drives more and more South Australians to return home. Since March, more than 350,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents have returned, many of them headed for South Australia.

Whether to be with family who need them, to embrace the balanced approach to life that South Australia exemplifies or simply because the requirement to work remotely affords them the opportunity to work from home, South Australia’s management of the pandemic and safety of our cities and towns has shown itself to be a major drawcard for ex-pats.

While we could not envision COVID-19 specifically, my fellow Social Capital Residencies Thinkers and I did anticipate that in a world marred by increasing inequality and climate change we would need talent that could tackle these challenges.

One of the key recommendations in our new report – released today – focuses on encouraging “government and the tertiary education sector to implement a plan to attract, develop and retain talent needed to grow a more purposeful economy”. COVID-19 has kickstarted this recommendation’s implementation, and South Australia needs to take advantage of the return of ex-pat South Australians by urgently developing a plan to entice them and their talent to remain here.

We need not only a plan for retaining talent, but a plan to create the principles and conditions for success which we believe would lead to South Australia being recognised as a vibrant, purposeful economy that advances both the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) and creates new jobs.

In fact, the Business and Sustainable Development Commission’s 2017 flagship report indicated that “achieving the SDGs could create 380 million jobs and help unlock at least $12 trillion in opportunities for business by 2030”. The Social Capital Residencies report can unlock these principles and conditions.

We urge the South Australian Government to act quickly to give the returned ex-pats reason to keep their experience here in South Australia. In considering the recommendations of the Social Capital Residencies report, the Government would also be creating an environment for collaboration between these returned ex-pats, young people and organisations to advance work in the for-purpose sector.

As we look to each other around the world for ideas on how to “build back better” from the COVID era, we believe this report advantages South Australia and maximises the value in making the state a home for good.

Allyson Hewitt was the principal Thinker in Residence in the Dunstan Foundation’s Social Capital Residency. She is the vice-president, impact, at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, Canada.

The Social Capital Residencies final report is being launched today.

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