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Brain drain could come back to haunt some European economies.

Forget “home, sweet home.” These days, a growing number of young university and business school graduates — especially in Europe — are moving abroad for career opportunities.

Their career plans are driven both by better job prospects in more vibrant economies and by their generation’s more global mindset. Millennials, who were born in the 1980s and 1990s, grew up more aware of the world outside their home country than earlier generations. They had more international experiences because of personal travel and study abroad programmes, and the internet brought the world to their laptops and cell phones.

Consider Victoria Cai, a Canadian who has lived in China, the US, France, the UK and Germany, as a poster child for the cosmopolitan millennial. A student in the master’s in management programme at London Business School, the 22-year-old is looking far afield for employment and is interested in both Dubai and Singapore.

“Young people are not only learning to be flexible about where they work due to the difficult job market, but also because they are genuinely interested in discovering different work environments and opportunities abroad,” said Cai, who aspires to work for a multinational company or global advisory practice.

But wanderlust among millennials varies widely by country, according to two global surveys of both undergraduate and graduate business students. Some of the research findings indicate that countries with very high youth unemployment, such as Spain and Italy, may be the most vulnerable to a talent exodus.

A 2013 survey of MBA (master of business administration) and other graduate business students by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) found that 23% of Europeans planned to seek jobs outside the continent, up from 15% in 2010. Even more undergraduates in several European countries hoped to work abroad: 42% of those surveyed in France; 40% in Italy; 37% in Spain; 30% in the UK; and 30% in Switzerland, according to Universum, a research and consulting firm.

European business schools are going all out to connect their globetrotting students with recruiters from other regions. Spain’s IESE Business School recently partnered with several other major European schools for career fairs in New York, London and Barcelona to attract recruiters from the US, Asia and Latin America.

“Career services departments have historically competed, but we recognised that if several top schools collaborated, we could give recruiters a critical mass of students,” said Fiona Sandford, executive director for careers and global business at London Business School, which hosted the Asian recruiting event last month.

She said that in the past, about two-thirds of the school’s MBA graduates would normally take jobs in the UK, but for the first time in 2012, more than half started their careers in other countries. Similarly, only 20% of IESE’s full-time MBA graduates landed jobs in Spain in 2013, down from more than one-third of the class before the 2008 financial crisis.

Brain drain

That brain drain could come back to haunt some European economies when fortunes improve and they need seasoned talent. “The real risk is that the best talent is leaving,” said Melissa Bailey, president for the Americas at Universum.

As fast-growing developing nations create more jobs, Universum found that undergraduates from China, Russia, India, Mexico and Brazil are now less likely than European students to look beyond their homeland for jobs. GMAC’s 2013 study showed a similar trend for graduate business students: 79% from the Asia/Pacific Islands region planned to work there, up from 73% in 2010.

While more young Americans say they want some international work experience, they are still far less inclined than most other nationalities to venture abroad on a more permanent basis. In Universum’s study of undergraduates, only 16% indicated they would like to begin their careers overseas, while GMAC sees little change in its study, with 97% of US graduate business students seeking jobs at home.

“Many students will say they have an interest in working abroad, but whether they go after it is another story,” said Wendy Tsung, associate dean for MBA career services at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta. “Some people get caught up in family life, and some students fall in love with Atlanta.”

But Tsung does see some signs of change: For the first time, a few of Goizueta’s American students will be joining their international classmates on the school’s third annual recruiting trip to Asia this month.

 Some officials at universities in the US said that despite their awareness of global issues, many American students still aren’t confident about fitting into another culture. Others believe more Americans would explore job possibilities abroad, but cannot afford to accept lower salaries offered in some foreign countries because they’re saddled with so much student debt. Last year’s US college graduates had average student debt of $29,400, according to a new report from the Project on Student Debt at the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success.

Many US students also must struggle to compete with European and Asian counterparts who bring a stronger international sensibility and better language skills to the workplace.

But there are exceptions. Tyler Babcock, a 26-year-old MBA student at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington, DC, boasts both educational and work experience in China. He also was involved in establishing a non-profit organisation to encourage volunteering in China.

“When I was abroad, I felt like I was having a greater impact than I could in the US, while also learning a lot of new things,” said Babcock, who is among the 17% of US students in Georgetown’s MBA class of 2015 who list a non-U.S. location as their first or second employment choice. That’s up from 6% for the class of 2010.

Last month, Babcock, who aims to return to China, networked with recruiters at an annual global careers conference at Georgetown that was co-sponsored with Spain’s ESADE Business School. “I feel there are a lot more opportunities abroad, and you really have to consider a global career because business has gone global,” he said. “I try not to base my career decision on monetary concerns because I feel that as Asia develops, I can still make a good wage.”

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