Drawing students to HK will ease looming labour shortage

An academic exchange programme shows how city can resolve looming shortage of workers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 September, 2012, 4:39am

Tens of thousands of university students in Hong Kong from the mainland and overseas are preparing for the new semester next week. While many may be uncertain about their futures, the fates of most are surely closely linked to the city.

Indeed, Hong Kong's future is tied to theirs as well since many will join the local workforce after they graduate and help ease a looming labour shortage in the coming years.

By 2018 there could be a shortfall of 22,000 workers with higher education, a Labour and Welfare Bureau report in February shows.

That won't be easy to resolve, but a recently concluded student-exchange trial programme of universities in Hong Kong and Guangdong might show the way forward.

In 2005 the 2+2 programme was jointly launched by the Sun Yat-sen University's Department of Applied Mechanics and Engineering and the University of Hong Kong's Department of Civil Engineering.

Each year the project recruited about 20 mainland engineering students to spend two years attending classes in Guangzhou before transferring to Hong Kong to complete their final two years of study.

To ensure the students were best qualified to enter Hong Kong's job market upon graduation, their lectures, textbooks and teaching materials were primarily in English.

Some HKU lecturers travelled to Guangzhou to teach the first- and second-year classes.

Keeping the students on the mainland for their first two years of study saved money for the students and Hong Kong's government. Their last two years in Hong Kong - or more if they stayed on for post-graduate degrees - gave them time to familiarise themselves with the city's professional engineering practices.

"We have a better understanding of our jobs and the city, which means the period of adaptation we needed after graduation was very short," said Michael Lu, one of 23 programme participants who graduated last year. Lu said all his classmates found work with firms in Hong Kong, save one who was accepted into a master's programme in Britain.

So it's worth exploring whether a similar approach can work on a broader scale involving more universities in the Pearl River Delta area or overseas.

Since it is hard to reverse cultural trends that have left Hong Kong with one of the lowest birth rates in the world, attracting skilled mainland or overseas workers is the best way to address the issue of a shortage of workers.

Government statistics forecast that Hong Kong will have 437 dependents for every 1,000 workers by 2021, up from 333 dependents per 1,000 workers last year.

Within a decade, one in five Hongkongers will be 65 or older.

Job seekers who were neither raised nor educated in Hong Kong have advantages in the labour market. Since they lack ties to the city, they're more likely to be motivated by the most attractive job offers in terms of wages and living conditions.

But those who were educated in Hong Kong are more likely to form ties to the city and stay even after getting their degrees. After two years in Hong Kong, Lu and other 2+2 participants became familiar with the city's culture, its job market and the environment.

"Many of us chose this programme because of the fame of HKU and the city," Lu said. "A chance to stay [after graduation] was also an important reason."

As concerns about the looming labour shortage mount, the city must work with leaders and institutions to create solutions that will draw more students to Hong Kong.

The city should not just be thinking outside the box, but beyond its borders.