Tuesday 27 September 2016

Return of the emigrant

Just five years ago they couldn't find work here for love nor money. But with a growth in jobs, ­particularly in Dublin, many emigrants are now ­returning. John Meagher talks to those who ­decided it was time to come home - and finds it is not always easy

Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30

Relocation, relocation: Liam McDonagh and fiancée Rachel McGrane have returned to Ireland. Photo: Arthur Carron
Relocation, relocation: Liam McDonagh and fiancée Rachel McGrane have returned to Ireland. Photo: Arthur Carron
Happy to be back: Una Mckeown, returned to her native Dublin after a three-year-stint in London in April. Photo: Damien Eagers

For Tom Doyle, everything has been turned on its head in the space of just five years. In 2010, the recruitment consultant was helping to find jobs abroad for highly qualified engineers and quantity surveyors. Now, he is actively seeking to bring such people back to Ireland from Australia, Canada and elsewhere.

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"There was no work here for them in the early years of the recession," he says, "so, unless they wanted to do something else for a living, there was little option but to emigrate. Now, there are many openings again in Ireland and we're only in the infancy of it."

The director at KPPM recruitment has been busy of late putting out the message that Ireland Inc is well and truly in recovery and some of those who he helped find a new life abroad are hearing the call.

"It's come 360 degrees," he says. "In 2009 and 2010, countries like Canada were looking to recruit in Ireland and they did. But some of those people are keen to come back to Ireland and to build their lives here. And they've been coming back for the past 12 months or so."

The most recent figures from the Central Statistics Office published last year showed a 20pc drop in emigration, and up to 12,000 emigrants returning. This trend is expected to be accelerated when up-to-date figures are published later this month.

One of those who has made the journey home is Liam McDonagh, an engineer from Dublin, who returned to Ireland just four weeks ago following five years in Australia. "The situation was dire in 2010," he says. "I would apply for the few suitable jobs there were and I would never hear anything back." He wound up on the live register for a while and spent six months working in a pub. "It was very deflating," he says. "It became obvious that there wasn't much happening in Ireland and I was going to have to leave."

Like many of his college mates and others in the construction industry, Liam (32) pitched up in Perth, Western Australia, and worked in a series of engineering jobs centred around the mining trade.

He amassed considerable experience and came to enjoy life in the most isolated city on earth. Despite this, he really missed his family and friends back home and when his Irish fiancée, Rachel McGrane, decided she had had enough of Perth and moved back home, he knew that he would soon follow in her footsteps.

"I had a good job in Dublin, but I thought that it would be impossible to sustain a relationship when we were living so far apart, so I decided to move over, too," Rachel (30) says. Perth, however, provided few opportunities for employment for her and many of the other female partners who moved over.

"Most of the jobs were in male-dominated areas like construction, mining and engineering," she says. "There weren't so many in the financial sector, for instance."

She found that she missed home and when she got word that her former employers in Dublin had a job for her, she returned. The couple got engaged at Christmas and Liam set in train the business of relocating to Ireland. "It takes a lot of money and effort to emigrate - and it's the same when you decide to come back," he says. "It's never an overnight thing."

Buoyed by stories of Dublin's resurgence, he arrived home without a job secured, but found one within three weeks. "It's unrecognisable from the Ireland of 2010," he says, adding that he and Rachel are enjoying life together on Irish soil once more.

Liam's boss, Greg Hayden of Ethos Engineering, knows only too well the challenges of coming back to Ireland. He worked as an engineer in Britain between 1989 and 1997 and says it took a long time to reacclimatise.

But, he believes, the experience he picked up across the Irish Sea turned out to be invaluable. And it was partly memory of this that encouraged him to seek out skilled Irish people who had emigrated since the 2008 crash.

Since last October, Ethos actively sought to recruit Irish engineers living abroad, especially in the two countries where most of them emigrated to - Australia and Canada. Many of the 15 who have joined the company since then are returned emigrants. "It can be quite a drawn out process after the first contact is made because it's not an easy thing to pack up and come home, especially for those who have to see out contracts, or leases, or have children in school."

There are other concerns too. Tom Doyle says the salaries offered by many Irish firms are not nearly as attractive as they might be, especially for those emigrants who enjoyed quick promotions abroad.

"Money is one of the stumbling blocks," he says. "Salaries aren't good enough here, so if someone is quite happy where they are, they may well stay there."

The recruitment consultant says that because most of the jobs tend to be in the Dublin region, a large chunk of the pay can go towards servicing accommodation expenses. "Much of it depends on where people have been," he says, "if the cost of living is high or not there. As the capital, Dublin will always be a more expensive place to live, but there are some exciting projects in the pipeline in other parts of the country, such as the Apple expansion in Cork and Facebook [data centre] in Co Meath."

Yet, there is a new realism at play for Irish employers and some are even offering cash inducements. The HSE will pay €1,500 towards the relocation costs of any emigrant who takes up a nursing post here.

Engineer Conor McGinn (32) returned to Dublin in 2014 after a two-and-a-half-year stint in Vancouver and was taken aback by a rental market here. "In Canada, we could find a nice apartment for about €800. Here an equivalent place is around €1,250 - and that's rising."

Like many young professionals hoping to get on the property ladder, he and wife Ruth are having to come to terms with the Central Bank ruling that requires most prospective buyers to have 20pc deposits saved, rather than the 10pc that was long the norm.

"We are planning to have a family and that was one of the driving factors that brought us back to Ireland, because our family and friend network is here," he says. Although he says Ruth was homesick now and again, the pair threw themselves into life in a city famed as a gateway to outdoor pursuits like skiing. "You reach a point where if the job is good and your life is good that you stay there permanently and I think if you have children when you're away, it's less likely that you'll come home."

Una McKeown (26) returned to her native Dublin after a three-year stint in London in April and hasn't missed the bright lights. She works for the ad agency The Social House and a number of its new recruits are returned emigrants.

"London is a great city," she says, "but it feels as though you have to make a lot of money to live there. I mean, I could never see myself buying a home there, and it's very difficult to even save money in London. If felt as though you were living for going out at the weekends.

"The work-life balance is so much better here and it really feels as though Ireland is in a much better place than when I left. Dublin in particular is a great city to be in, and it's lovely that my friends and family are here. There's so much to do, and so much that I haven't done yet - restaurants, and galleries, nice parks with concerts in the summer, and so much happening all over the city."

Una's colleague, Co Down native Catriona Campbell, lived in London for 10 years. Now managing director of The Social House, she had bought a house in London, but as she approached 30 and the prospect of starting a family loomed, she found herself hankering after a less frenetic way of life. She returned to Ireland in 2012.

Getting used to life in Dublin, a city she had never lived in before, took its time. "I'd say it took me a good two years to settle in fully," she says. "What surprised me at first was how expensive it was to rent. In some parts of the city, the rents would be similar to what you would pay in London." Now just a matter of weeks away from giving birth to her first child, she says she is very happy to have made the move. "Over the past year, especially, I've noticed lots of people returning. Dublin is a very creative city and there are plenty of intriguing start-ups looking for staff. It feels like a really good time right now."

Catriona (34) is one of a number of staff at her agency who have come back to Ireland. Another, an emigrant to Toronto, is set to join the firm later this month.

The Social House found itself in the headlines last month after running a provocative 'Irish go home' ad campaign in Canada. The idea was to drive outraged emigrants to pleaseleavecanada.com, a proxy site for Catriona's agency. There they would see that far from xenophobic Canadians, they were confronted by job offers back home.

"We got about 150 responses to it," she says, "and it was so interesting to read their stories. A lot of the people who left are really keen to come back and now that there are more opportunities here than there have been in years, the time is good."

For one unnamed expat, now living in Canada and working in the construction industry, the thought of returning to live permanently in Ireland after more than five years away is what sustains him in the bad times. "I know that some people really make emigration work for them, but I've hated it," he says. "I never wanted to leave Ireland in the first place, but my skill set meant I didn't have much choice.

"What you don't really hear about emigration is how expensive it is, how you need to buy furniture when you move into unfurnished flats, how in certain jobs you absolutely have to have a car."

He hopes to come home for good next year. "I can't wait, to be honest, and I'm already dreading the thoughts of another Canadian winter. The saving grace for me is the job - I've learnt so much. My employers treat me really well too and I can see that I'm valued.

"But none of that compensates for being away from home and there are times I miss my mother and father so much it actually hurts."

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