Hong Kong immigration scheme to fast track tech workers based on ‘rough estimation’

Innovation and technology insiders question whether government programme that appears to lack formal research will be an effective way to boost the sector

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 8:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 8:03am

Questions have been raised about the effectiveness of a fast-track immigration scheme designed to draw outside talent to work in Hong Kong’s hi-tech sector after the Post learned its goal of recruiting 1,000 workers in its first year was based largely on informal guesswork.

Some in the industry were left wondering whether the Technology Talent Admission Scheme, which will be rolled out on June 25 and can expedite the immigration process from a few months to four weeks, will be an effective tool in boosting the city’s tech ambitions, a top priority for Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

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The scheme is related to three other government programmes that have funnelled more than 147,000 workers from mainland China and foreign countries from 2008 to 2017.

When the Innovation and Technology Bureau announced its three-year pilot scheme on May 8, Cheuk Wing-hing, the permanent secretary for innovation and technology, said: “In the course of formulating the 1,000 quota for the scheme’s first-year operation, the Innovation and Technology Commission consulted Cyberport and the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park, and calculated the existing and expected demands.”

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However, when the Post requested materials related to the consultations, the Commission for Innovation and Technology, which will oversee the implementation of the scheme, said there was no formal study conducted.

Commissioner for Innovation and Technology Annie Choi Suk-yin said the quota of 1,000 maximum people was derived from “a rough estimation … concluded from some known and estimated demands”.

The demands, according to Choi, were “a general understanding” from “daily interactions” among officials at the science park and Cyberport, and their tenant companies.

Choi said the commission did not have any documents, data or reports related to the interactions.

A bureau spokeswoman also confirmed the 1,000-worker figure was based on informal feedback.

Six companies in the science park and Cyberport reached by the Post said they were not surveyed by the innovation and technology authorities.

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Only the 1,570 companies in the science park and Cyberport are eligible to apply for the scheme.Eligibility is based on whether a business falls into seven selected areas such as biotechnology and artificial intelligence. An admission quota no more than 100 people will be allotted to a company that can prove there is there is a lack of candidates in the local talent pool.

Cheuk is also a board member of the science park and Cyberport.

Charles Mok, a pro-democracy lawmaker who represents information and technology constituency, criticised the government for what he said was a failure to conduct thorough research.

“They didn’t study what kind of talent is most needed: fresh graduates with a doctoral or master’s degree, or those with five to 10 years’ experience in a certain field?

“They didn’t study the scheme’s impact on local market … They didn’t study whether outside talent want to come and work in Hong Kong,” Mok said.

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He also questioned why the scheme was exclusive to companies in science park and Cyberport.

While companies reached by the Post welcomed the scheme, they were not convinced it was necessary or effective.

Langston Suen, 29, founder and CEO of biomedical company Opharmic in the science park, said the start-up could have almost all its needs satisfied in local market.

“We have shortlisted three to four candidates [in the local market] for the position of product engineer,” Suen said.

Albert Lam, 36, chief scientist of Fano Labs, a start-up that develops chatbot technology, said the scheme could facilitate recruitment, but did little to help narrow the salary gap between the city and mainland technology giants, which offer higher wages to lure top talent.

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“We are hoping to double our team of scientists by hiring 10 more people but so far we have got only two to three candidates in the local market, where development of AI is still very nascent,” Lam said.

Echoing Lam, co-founder and CEO of Ix Fintech in Cyberport Irene Wong, said the scheme might benefit large companies more than smaller ones because of recruitment demands and resources.

“But it may be more effective if the government can realise its promise to launch a subsidy scheme for start-ups to hire doctoral degree holders later this year,” Wong said, adding that the admission scheme was “better than nothing”.

In his 2018 budget, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po pledged to earmark HK$500 million (US$63.7 million) for initiatives to attract technology talent.