A government subsidy for companies prepared to share the cost of higher-than-market-rate wages for vocational trainees would stretch the policy of leaving business decisions to the private sector. Nonetheless it is an idea that has been floated just a week ahead of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's policy address, when he is expected to deal with the issue of skilled labour shortages. In Hong Kong, as in other leading Asian economic powers, getting into university and continuing higher studies is seen as necessary for success in life. But the economy also needs vocationally skilled people to build, service and update its infrastructure hardware. Without properly structured training and rewards commensurate with the value to the community of their acquired skills, they can fall into short supply. Despite its practical application, vocational training is neglected compared with higher education. It deserves a bigger share of government support.
Many countries have responded in partnerships with businesses that put a higher premium on vocational skills. In Germany, for example, apprentices can spend more than half a week at a company providing training in practical skills in their field of work, and one or two days at a school for theoretical grounding, under a vocational and educational training scheme that lasts from two to three-and-a-half years. Essential skills can only be learned from such experience and training.
A source familiar with the government's thinking said companies would be expected to contribute to the subsidies. Sectors identified as beneficiaries - such as electrical work, lift maintenance, and car and aircraft repairs - struggle to attract young people because of low starting wages and unglamorous working environments. Union officials also blame outsourcing of trade work to contractors with no interest in training people and parental resistance to giving up study for vocational training. They welcomed the idea of subsidies because, otherwise, the electrical industry for example would have to rely on imported labour - a sensitive issue with union officials.
The question, however, is no longer whether we need to import skilled labour. It is how to reconcile that with a revival of skilled vocation necessary to the economy. The government needs to be mindful of Singapore's experience of tensions over immigration to fill low-paying jobs amid rising living costs. Any scheme to make essential skilled jobs more attractive to our own young people is therefore welcome.