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SINGAPORE (Reuters) - "Go East" is a message being heeded by many Asian professionals in the United States and Europe who see brighter job prospects in a region that is expected to outperform the rest of the world for economic growth.
Zhang Zheng Han, 26, is one of a growing flock of highly educated Asians living in the West who have bought one-way tickets home, lured by job opportunities, family ties and a comfortable lifestyle.
"Right now no nation is changing as swiftly as China," he said. "There are so many opportunities for people in my generation."
After getting his masters degree in engineering from the UK's Nottingham University, he came back to China and immediately began work for a stem cell research firm.
Other Asians should follow, according to American investor Jim Rogers, who co-founded the Quantum Fund with George Soros. He thinks this century will be China's and now lives in ethnically Chinese Singapore, where his young kids are learning Mandarin.
"If you're in London you're in the wrong place at the wrong time ... You gotta move east," he told Reuters TV recently.
The trend of reverse migration has accelerated in the past few months as the financial crisis has hit the United States and Europe harder than many Asian economies. This influx will serve Asia well as it needs skilled managers to leverage further growth, experts say.
"These returnees would serve as a bridge between Asia and the rest of the economies," said Irvin Seah, an economist at Singapore's DBS, Southeast Asia's largest bank.
"With the exposure they had in Western economies and their local knowledge, they will be able to fill the human capital gap in Asia and significantly contribute to Asia's growth."
The average Asian returnee nowadays is in his or her 30s, has a masters or doctorate degree, and comes from the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, according to Vivek Wadhwa, a researcher at Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program.
Their influx into Asia's job market may help to plug the middle to senior management gap in companies operating in the region as they are cheaper to hire than expatriates but are more qualified than locals owing to soft skills learned in the West, which experts say are often lacking in the Asian workplace.
"We're constantly replacing expats with Asian returnees, people from their home countries who have been somewhat Westernized in business practices or business culture," said Ames Gross, president of Pacific Bridge, a U.S.-based recruitment firm that specializes in matching returnees to Asia-based firms.
Wages in developing Southeast Asian countries may be around 25 percent of those in the West, Gross said, but the wage gap for professionals is narrowing. Singapore and Hong Kong companies currently pay a comparable amount to the U.S. and Europe.
Firms in Asia will need a lot of talent to drive growth. Executive search firm MRI Group said last year that companies in China will need 70,000 middle and senior managers over the next five years.
An estimated six million students will graduate in China and three million in India this year, but human resource experts say local graduates often lack the communication and practical business skills needed to get jobs.
Asian returnees say their Western exposure gives them the ability to deal with international customers.
"At the organizational level, companies in the U.S. tend to understand marketing, positioning and differentiation pretty well," said Vikram Narayan, an Indian returnee who started his own firm Ascendus Technologies in Bangalore after working as an analyst at Sun Microsystems.
"Managing customer expectations is definitely something I learned when I was in the U.S."
It's not just management and marketing know-how. Asian returnees have also been credited for bringing sparks of technological innovation back to their home countries.
Robin Li, a graduate of the State University of New York, co-founded China's largest search engine Baidu. Hotmail is the brainchild of Sabeer Bhatia, who returned to India after graduating from Stanford University.
"The returnees are a lot more innovative and entrepreneurial than the locals are," Harvard Law School's Wadhwa said. "So you're already seeing huge benefits to India and China from people who came back."
Editing by Megan Goldin