Reverse brain drain: Poles circulate home and out again to Europe

In the global reverse brain drain, migrants begin to influence a frumpy, provincial Poland in everything from toilets to insurance coverage to workplace attitude.

By , Staff writer

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    Wojciech Burkot, director of Google's R&D center in Krakow. Mr. Burkot, a high-energy physicist born in Krakow was given permission to open an office anywhere he wanted, but came back home. Burkot cites the area's high stress on education, science and math.
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When Wojciech Burkot was licensed by Google to open a research and development office anywhere on the planet, the wiry, high-energy physicist chose Krakow, Poland. And not just because he was born there.

Mr. Burkot had worked all over the globe – Europe, the United States, and Asia – in jobs with prestigious research organizations like the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and in private industry at Motorola. But after his 2006 interview at Google's California headquarters, he decided to settle his R&D outfit in Krakow because of its ongoing information and technology boom, and for the chance to bring something home.

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Burkot hopes Google's creativity and openness – "Crazy in a good way," he says – will rub off in a nation still a bit frumpy and provincial in the aftermath of communism. He recently took his team sailing on the Mediterranean Sea, not a typical Polish workplace outing. Google's offices, located across from an 11th-century Orthodox church, are a model of everything cutting edge in the industry, with a pirate flag, a ping-pong table, 24-hour access, and a disregard for hierarchy.

Meanwhile, Burkot's R&D teams, including returning Poles, are in headlong pursuit of faster search engine speed with ever larger caches of information. "That's the hard problem … speed plus size," he says, happy to be engrossed in his passion back in Krakow.

Steady 'circulatory' trickle of return

In some ways, Poland is the country in Europe most poised to benefit from a "brain gain" brought about by its returning migrants. For one, Poland's economy has boomed relative to those of its European neighbors: It grew 13 percent in the past five years while the rest of European economies shrank. For example, Poland is a top appliance and flat-screen-TV producer on the Continent, even as its identity as a manufacturing workshop is giving way to more R&D.

But second, and most crucial, is the large Polish diaspora. The Polish brain drain took human capital abroad for decades, partly because Poles enjoyed special visitation rights abroad under the Soviets; but largely because of the big explosion of emigration in 2004 when Poland joined the European Union. This marked the first generation of legal mobility, and the time is often spoken of in rapturous terms of new freedoms. Educated youth, many from rural areas, left in staggering numbers. Estimates of their exodus are sketchy, but 2 million departures may be in the ballpark, say experts. The vast majority landed in Ireland and England, feeding the rise of Europe's cheap-airlines phenomenon.

Burkot's return to Krakow with Google is a tidy example of the potential of brain gain in Poland after the global financial crash of 2008 and Europe's austerity. But analysts say there is not yet any mass U-turn to Poland – just a steady trickle.

A critical mass of brain gain brought by returning Poles is largely still a hope or expectation, says Pavel Kaczmarczyk, vice director of the Center for Migration Research at the University of Warsaw and an adviser to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.  [Editor's noteThe original version of this story erroneously called Mr. Tusk the Polish president.]

There is evidence some Poles have returned. For example, the number of Poles living in Ireland peaked in 2005 at 325,000 and has dropped now to 126,000, according to the recent Irish census.

But most have fought hard to stay abroad. Talent in the globalizing world of 2012 may be democratizing, but pay scales are not. Poland uses the zloty, and young PhDs in political science and medieval archaeology still make more as baristas and hotel clerks in Britain. London is now home to 600,000 registered Poles, and 400,000 or so migratory or short-termers, according to recent Polish government statistics.

"The economic crisis increases uncertainty and people are staying where they are," explains Mr. Kaczmarczyk. "Having made it abroad there is less desire to leave.... What we hope for is a new situation where cities like Warsaw and Krakow are changed by rural Poles with degrees going to London and returning. This is an expectation. What we benefit from now is a more European attitude adopted by Poles."

So Poland's nascent brain gain is seen now in incremental waves. Gains now come more via high-skilled and executive-level returnees. Scholars here speak of a "circulatory" population of migrants that come and go in Europe's unique ecosystem.

No serious academic will put a number on how many have returned. "Low" is the best that can be coaxed out. And it is more a case of individuals going and coming like Pavel Modrzejewski, an investment banker who left London after the financial crash to start a new line of fine Peruvian wool baby clothes that he and his twin brother export across Europe, and sell to an emerging upper middle class here.

"I'm in Poland now, but where I'll be in five years I don't know," Mr. Modrzejewski says.

And then there's Jaroslaw Bachowski, who is a part of the circulatory mode of returnees found in Polish corporate circles. He grew up near Krakow; studied both in Poland and then at the University of California, Los Angeles; and lived in Berkeley, Calif., in the early 1990s. He was the Polish hire in the executive trainee program at International Paper in Poland, and in 1994 he joined the American consulting firm of McKinsey & Company, working in Poland, Germany, Belgium, France, Russia, and the US, before deciding in 2004 that his life was no longer his own. He returned home.

"More [Polish] Western execs now want to continue advancing their career in Poland as it offers prospects of growth, but also more Poles are coming back," says Mr. Bachowski, now a partner in Warsaw at the executive search firm Egon Zehnder International. "The head of the biggest financial services firm here is a Harvard Business School grad, raised in Poland."

But many average Poles without such high profiles go and come quietly – "off the books" – without reporting their movement so they don't lose their cheaper health benefits in Poland.

"If you sit in a Krakow pub long enough you will find someone who has returned," says a journalist there. But many stay invisible.

Returning a greatly missing 'pleasantness'

The alchemy of ideas that come with returnees may be the most important gain – it's the thousand-and-one different concepts, attitudes, and outlooks picked up abroad that filter back with returnees.

In small waves from 1989 to 2000, returnees were conscious of bringing beneficial "social capital." And joining the European Union brought requirements that Poland build better roads and sewers, and improve government transparency. The brain gain via high-skilled returnees today brought greater awareness of sexual harassment standards, rights, a focus on civility, a greatly missing "pleasantness."

Konstanty Gebert of the European Council of Foreign Relations in Warsaw says he has detected reverse migrants bringing a "civilizational know-how that is transformative."

"It is true we have lost many of our best and brightest; but in the medium run, there is a gain," he says offering one observation as an example. "At a basic level, look at toilets! It used to be horrible. Now you can go to the bathroom," he says of public toilets that have become cleaner and more usable in recent years.

Bachowski sees a litany of empirical gains in the economy coming with the brain gain: improved ideas about customer care, the universal use of credit cards and chips, paperless and online banking. Competitiveness itself, he says, has revolutionized many businesses, bringing new concepts of customer service. For example, insurance firms have started to bundle services like plumbing and keymaking into coverage plans.

Yet brain gain is a mixed picture .

Among returnees after 2004 – the crowd that left for economic benefits – the impact is fuzzy and a work in progress.

A study of returnees by Katarzyna Gmaj, a social anthropologist at the Center for International Studies in Warsaw, showed that by "surviving abroad, they are more brave but also more demanding [back home], in the positive sense. But that can bring difficulties finding a job. If you experienced abroad that your boss should be honest, you may demand this [in Poland], but you may not get it."

Indeed, studies show many returnees, especially women, describe a more affirmative identity abroad, but fall into older patterns of apathy or servility upon return.

A "reality factor" is faced here by returnees says Ms. Gmaj. "It is easier to start a business in London speaking Polish than for a Pole to start one in Poland speaking Polish.

Beefy, no-nonsense Mariusz Mularczyk, who spent 10 years in Germany as a construction project manager, has faced such business realities. He helped build an Opel plant and was offered German citizenship. But instead, he came home to Warsaw with new ideas, a longing for home, and a 10-year-old daughter.

But Mr. Mularczyk remains ambivalent about his decision: "When you pay taxes in Germany they hold your hand. When you go to the tax office in Poland you are treated like a thief."

Nor do locals always warm up to new concepts, he says: "People don't just accept what comes back." The "light frame" efficient construction now popular in Europe that he worked with in Germany, he notes as an example, is only slowly making inroads here.

What Mularczyk brings to the "gain" table is a more Western sense of quality. He says he can now identify how project managers hide mistakes "at all cost" rather than identify them and work out solutions. "It's a mentality that only changes slowly."

Gmaj agrees: "When you come back you have a tough road. There are no roses on that road. Facing Polish realities is sometimes very painful."

But, says Bachowski, pain may lead to gain: "The biggest thing created by four waves of return since 1989 is a population that for the first time has expectations for something better across the board – for infrastructure, for consumer lifestyle, for international mobility. That's part of Poland's gain."

One person, big ripple

Asked if he thinks Poland is changing as a result of the nascent brain gain, Google's Burkot explains the influence of the new influx: "I hate hierarchies. When I first saw Google head-quarters in California ... I went for my interview ... at 7 p.m. There was a riot of people working, talking, playing ping-pong. My host saw the expression on my face. 'Yes,' he said, 'I know it looks like a giant kindergarten. But the amount of work that can be done by a few dedicated engineers is incredible.' "

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And, he adds, "We are doing that here [in Krakow]. We outreach. We are good citizens. And so we are making baby steps with the locals based on the idea that one simple person can make a huge difference."

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