Hong Kong police like to be known for “getting their man” – or bringing a wrongdoer to justice. But when it comes to getting a man or woman to join their ranks they are struggling to reach recruitment targets.
Many must wonder why a service that offers recruits more-than-competitive salaries, plus a clear promotion path and job and retirement security, cannot attract the people it wants.
About 8,000 people applied to become police officers in the financial year 2021-22. The force hired just 170 probationary inspectors and 484 constables, or only 87 per cent and 36 per cent respectively of the targets for the two ranks. It still has about 5,000 vacancies.
The force partly attributed the low numbers to the diversion of recruitment and selection resources to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. But it also came up with more worrying, underlying reasons, such as a dramatic shrinkage in the young labour force, less interest in lifelong government jobs and work-life balance.
Superintendent Baron Chan Shun-ching, in charge of recruitment, says a drop in the 15-29 age group of the working population, and post-pandemic business recovery has led to increased competition for talent.
According to the 2021 population census, the labour force in the 15-24 age group, excluding foreign domestic helpers, fell from 347,410 in 2011 to 226,026 last year. This reflects an ageing population and smaller families in which aspirational parents are more likely to be able to afford more education and a wider choice of career for their offspring.
Hong Kong is one of the more heavily policed societies per capita, with more than 33,000 disciplined officers and nearly 5,000 civilians. It is open to argument whether it is over-policed, given the challenges of the national security law and cybercrime.
Public trust in the force is paramount. The social unrest of 2019 put its standing to the test. That does nothing for recruitment, but there is no room for compromise of standards of educational attainment and physical fitness.
The force must restore confidence as it did before after the corruption scandal of the 1960s-70s, and rebuild trust in a divided society if it is to meet competition for talent from the private sector head on.