Why Hong Kong is losing the competition for talent
Paul Yip says despite its budget surpluses, the government is not investing enough, and in the right places, to provide education and training opportunities, create attractive jobs and improve our living environment
The latest census figures show that Hong Kong suffered a net loss of 24,300 residents in migration flows last year. With a natural increase of 10,000 (more births than deaths) and the addition of 47,000 one-way permit holders, Hong Kong managed a population growth of just 0.4 per cent in 2017. The city’s population profile continues its greying trend, with no improvement in sight.
There are many reasons Hongkongers move away, the major ones being the falling quality of life here and unaffordable housing costs. Young people, especially, are finding it hard to keep up.
Recently, a Canadian-university graduate who worked here wrote to me about his experience. He said the expensive housing and long working hours eventually convinced him to move back to Canada, even though he had been offered a job with one of the large accountancy firms in Hong Kong.
A recent media report suggested that we are losing health care workers, including doctors and nurses, to other economies because of our less favourable living and working environment. Yet, the professional bodies in this sector have not been receptive to foreign talent working in Hong Kong to make up the shortfall.
This means that those currently working face burnout despite earning a good income. For patients, it means longer waiting times and more expensive health care if they seek treatment outside the pubic hospital system.
One other group of emigrants are parents, who feel Hong Kong does not provide sufficient opportunities for the young to develop life skills or train for future employment. So they move the entire family to give their children a better education.
Many Hongkongers also attend university abroad, since there are only about 15,000 government-subsidised university places offered locally, not enough to meet demand. The number of young people studying in the UK, Australia, Canada and the United States is reportedly at an all-time high. Hong Kong will lose them if they decide to stay on after their studies.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor wants to turn Hong Kong into an innovation and technology centre, especially in biotechnology, artificial intelligence and financial technology. Yet our capacity in these sectors is still low, compared to others.
A good way to boost this capacity is to nurture home-grown talent. However, although our universities produce about 600 postgraduate degree holders annually, many of them end up working overseas. The Hong Kong government and private sector have simply not done enough to retain these talented individuals, such as by creating more postdoctoral training and job opportunities. Again, we are losing our talent.
It’s time to make some hard decisions. The government must inject hope into the community by providing suitable training to all who need it, to maintain Hong Kong’s competitiveness. The young should be given more opportunities to seek higher education. Those who are already working need a good retraining package.
It is also time to make strategic use of land premiums to provide affordable and comfortable accommodation for all in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is losing the competition for talent. The professional bodies which impose a high entry bar for foreigners need to rethink their position, and consider the best interests of Hong Kong rather than just their own.
This year, Hong Kong is expected to see a budget surplus of about HK$160 billion. Budget surpluses do not make the government look good. The call for more sweeteners only shows laziness and incompetence in managing our wealth. We need a competent government to invest strategically in our future.
Paul Yip is chair professor (population health) in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong