Strategy needed to fight tech talent drain

Local governments across the mainland are creating an increasingly attractive lists of incentives to lure hi-tech professionals. Hong Kong must develop a plan to counter this drain on talent if the city’s economy is to be redefined

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 September, 2017, 1:06am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 September, 2017, 1:06am

The mainland once saw foreign investment as the key to development. But it is now awash with capital after three decades of strong growth and the future lies in scientific innovation and technology. Local governments have taken the idea, first laid out in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, to heart, so much so that there is now a battle among cities for talent. The increasingly attractive lists of incentives should ring alarm bells for Hong Kong, which also is trying to build a hi-tech sector.

There is much for Hong Kong to worry about. China’s local governments have been competing for foreign investment since economic reforms were launched in the late 1970s. Officials know what it takes to attract businesspeople and investors to set up factories and the same strategy applies when it comes to drawing skilled workers like scientists, application developers and engineers. Experience is a key element of the tech industry and the success of a venture often depends on the capabilities of its staff.

The aggressive tactics of cities like Chengdu and Shenzhen make the point. Familiarity has long enabled Beijing and Shanghai to attract premier businesses, so inducements have to be especially appealing. Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, last Tuesday issued a list of measures going beyond the usual rent subsidies and cash incentives, offering leading entrepreneurs and researchers “talent green cards” that ensure privileges when buying a home, seeking medical care and obtaining a driving licence. They will be fast-tracked at banks, offered lower interest rates on loans and given free entry to cultural venues and museums and the popular panda research base.

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Shenzhen, which has ambitions to become the Silicon Valley of China, guarantees places for children in the city’s top schools and the best health services. But the cutthroat environment means that such offers are being outdone by smaller cities eager to lure professionals. The employment flows are from within the mainland, but Hong Kong and elsewhere also are being targeted. There has been heavy investment in attracting the world’s best through Beijing’s so-called thousand talents programme and its “green card” system has been revamped.

For Hong Kong, that has meant university science and technology graduates are more likely to go to the mainland and elsewhere than remain in our city. A recent survey showed one in three firms faced a severe shortage in technical manpower requirements. That paucity of talent is a major challenge that Hong Kong’s government has to come up with a strategy to deal with if our economy is to be redefined and set on a stronger course.