Passengers check the flight schedule in the departure hall at Hong Kong International Airport on September 10. People in their early 20s have emerged as the main group of Hongkongers who have left the city over the past five years. Photo: Yik Yeung-man
Ken Chu
Ken Chu

How Hong Kong can stem the brain drain and compete in the global battle for talent

  • The city must help young people reach their potential and instil a sense of belonging, while increasing university places for non-locals, letting them stay longer after graduation
  • It could also raise the retirement age, learn from rival cities in offering incentives and rope overseas trade offices into the recruitment drive

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the global battle for talent rages on – because human capital is now considered the most crucial factor in driving competitiveness, innovation and productivity in the increasingly digitalised and technology-based world economy.

Hong Kong must double down on its efforts to retain, nurture and attract talent, particularly as the 14th five-year plan clearly declares Beijing’s commitment to supporting this city in developing as an international innovation and technology hub. To meet expectations, Hong Kong must cast a wide net.
If we do not take drastic and swift measures, Hong Kong will face an unprecedented talent crunch, exacerbated by our rapidly ageing population, steadily falling birth rate and growing exodus. Those aged 65 and older already make up just over 20 per cent of the population, a proportion expected to rise to 29 per cent in 2034.


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Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu has vowed to attract foreign talent to Hong Kong’s medical, innovation and high-end technology sectors. He also pledged to support our talented local young people by resolving the problems they encounter in education, housing and career development.
Lamentably, a survey last year found that more than one in four local secondary school leavers wanted to study abroad. According to Unesco, more than 36,000 Hongkongers are already doing so. Put together, the numbers represent a significant pool of future talent.

Losing them young: Hongkongers in early 20s are biggest emigrating group

Helping our young people here, or those back after an education overseas, to reach their potential is one way to shore up the talent pool. We can also instil a sense of belonging so they can’t be easily “ poached” by rival cities.
According to the Census and Statistics Department, 113,200 residents left between mid-2021 and mid-2022, compared to 89,200 in the previous 12 months. This contributed to a 1.6 per cent population decline, the biggest since 1961. The British National (Overseas) visa scheme, which has drawn more than 140,500 applications, is expected to accelerate the outflow.
This is alarming. If even half of those seeking to exit are our youngsters, middle-aged professionals and experienced expatriates, we have a brain drain issue. It is no secret that international headhunters have struggled to fill banking and finance-related positions here.

So what can we do to retain and attract talent, young and old, local and foreign? What can Hong Kong do to replenish our shrinking talent pool?


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For a start, we can tap our elderly, many of whom must have held senior corporate positions and have an abundance of experience and expertise. Raising the retirement age would deepen the talent pool and boost levels of experience, knowledge and skill continuity. As an example, the retirement age for public doctors and healthcare workers was raised last year to deal with pressing manpower shortages.

Another way forward is to increase university places for non-local students and raise the allowed period of stay after graduation through the Immigration Arrangements for Non-local Graduates scheme.

To attract high-end scientists and researchers to boost our innovation and technology sector, Hong Kong can learn from Qianhai, Shenzhen and even Singapore. They offer preferential treatment and generous support from bonuses and tax incentives to housing and education.

Singapore’s talent drive is a wake-up call for Hong Kong

Our 14 overseas economic and trade offices should be part of the recruitment drive, in coordination with either the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation or our universities.
Lee has promised to outline, in his coming policy address, his measures to attract top talent from around the world to bolster our innovation and tech sector.

Many challenges lie ahead for Hong Kong in the global talent grab. Beyond professional considerations, a key factor is quality of life, especially with work-life balance becoming increasingly important. To capture and retain talent, Hong Kong must improve the city’s liveability by promoting cultural and entertainment opportunities and fostering exciting outdoor activities.

Perhaps it is time for Hong Kong to review and revamp our immigration and population policies to better attract skilled and highly educated workers as well as to enhance our local human capital to maintain our economic vitality.

Ken Chu is group chairman and CEO of Mission Hills Group and a national committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference