Hong Kong has taken a huge step forward on wooing talents as indicated by Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s maiden Policy Address, which marked the city’s first shot in the global talent war. The new blueprint has embraced greater efforts to help the city regain its glamour as an international hub of talents — which the city cannot afford to lose. With Hong Kong’s distinctive edges, a slew of new policies are expected to further enrich its talent pool and inject a fresh impetus into the economy.
There are claims that there is a major rupture in Hong Kong’s talent pipeline. Amid “an emigration wave” and the COVID-19 pandemic, Hong Kong is experiencing a shortage of talents. How to attract and retain talents has always been a key concern of the government. According to official statistics, Hong Kong’s workforce has shrunk by about 135,000 since the second quarter of last year, with the financial industry’s workforce declining to 204,500 from 211,600, and the number of information and communications professionals dwindling to 127,000 from 133,500.
The criticism that Lee’s policies focus too much on attracting talents but neglect how to retain talents is untenable. For any government or sizable organizations, there are different considerations regarding retaining and attracting talents. Although both seem to be solutions to redress talent outflow, their purposes and principles differ to a large extent. The focus on retaining talents is to increase employees’ sense of belonging and satisfaction in their workplaces by offering job promotions, more learning opportunities, as well as attractive remuneration.
Enticing talents, on one hand, is out of the need to refill job vacancies. More importantly, it benefits enterprises’ and organizations’ future development goals, such as exploring new businesses opportunities or transforming existing business operations. Indeed, one cannot say retaining talents outweighs attracting them, and vice versa. They have complementary roles in long-term development.
It’s of utmost importance for the special administrative region government to recognize what kinds of opportunities and challenges await Hong Kong, and clearly identify the city’s development priorities before determining what kinds of talents should be targeted, or who the real talents are. It’s imprudent to assume that all people who have left Hong Kong are “talents”. The ease of replenishment of talents varies greatly among different professions. Various factors like the nature of the work, the recognition of overseas professional qualifications, and the eligibility of employment prevail among different kinds of industries. We should not overlook these factors before reaching hasty conclusions.
For example, the dwindling supply of professionals in the finance, medical care and education sectors has different consequences. The financial industry is international with relatively low barriers to professional qualifications in various regions, and therefore it is easier for overseas financial talents to find a job in Hong Kong. Still, once a financial institution relocates from Hong Kong to other places, the entire business along with the job opportunities will also be gone. For the medical sector in Hong Kong, it has the highest barriers to entry; even world-renowned experienced doctors cannot practice in the local healthcare system without going through local licensing examinations and training. As for secondary school teachers, who also have a relatively high exit rate, the entry barriers to the profession are relatively low (basically an undergraduate degree) while their salary in Hong Kong is relatively high (entry level is well over HK$30,000, or $3,800, a month). As such, it is just a matter of time to find replacements, but new teachers’ experience and quality remain in doubt. In addition, for civil servant posts in Hong Kong, one of the main eligibility requirements is whether applicants hold permanent-resident status.
The key reason behind Lee’s measures to “poach” strategic enterprises and talents is that the quality and quantity of talents are crucial to Hong Kong’s future, and that the rest of the world has already engaged in a talent war. Previous administrations used to value local workers over overseas talents, lacking a holistic talent policy that serves the city’s economic growth. Lee has prioritized industries like life-health technology, artificial intelligence, data science, financial technology, advanced manufacturing and new-energy technology for the next wave of growth, and preferential policies will be given to leading firms in these industries.
The new package of talent policies can be analyzed in terms of barriers or thresholds of entry. Among them is an extra Stamp Duty refund for the first residential property after qualified people have gained permanent residency. The policy can be regarded as a low-threshold initiative as it applies to every eligible person across all programs. It willalso help talents feel more at their home and stay here for the long haul.
As for the medium-threshold initiatives, they include suspending the annual quota under the Quality Migrant Admission Scheme for two years, relaxing the Immigration Arrangements for Non-local Graduates by extending the limit of stay from one year to two years, and expanding the scope of the arrangements to cover those who graduated from the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area campus of a Hong Kong university on a pilot basis for a period of two years. In addition, recent graduates from a worldwide top 100 university can also gain a Top Talent Pass to pursue a career in Hong Kong. These measures notably target recent graduates or potential high-caliber talents who generally have a relatively high level of academic qualifications and achievement.
Above all, the high-threshold initiative refers to the Top Talent Pass Scheme, which lures high earners and achievers with an annual salary of more than HK$2.5 million. Clearly, the initiative aims to entice top-notch talents with professional knowledge, expertise and specialized skills. It’s believed that the measure is made with reference to the Overseas Networks and Expertise Pass, which was recently launched by Singapore to recruit talents earning a monthly salary of S$30,000 ($21,250) in the past year (an annual salary of about HK$2 million). These high-net-income and net-worth talents, especially those in high-tech sectors, can take their fields to the forefront of the world’s frontiers, lifting skills in industries and enhancing more jobs and tremendous business opportunities to Hong Kong.
While Hong Kong has numerous unique strengths, in order to win the global talent battle, we should understand what preferential policies and incentives other potential competitors are offering. Taking mainland cities in the Greater Bay Area as an example, regardless of major disciplines, undergraduates who settle in Huangpu district of Guangzhou can get a one-time subsidy of 20,000 yuan ($2,750); postgraduates will get 30,000 yuan; and PhD graduates will get 50,000 yuan. Cash handouts are not a common practice of the SAR government. But as Hong Kong’s living and rental costs are among the world’s highest, it is suggested that a one-time subsidy (say, HK$100,000) be granted to all PhD graduates of the talent programs, including existing ones, and new Top Talent Pass Scheme applicants. This would lure more talents with high academic qualifications to Hong Kong, which would benefit a wide range of industries such as tertiary education, research, innovation and technology, as well as cultural and arts.
With the relaxation of COVID-19 policies, Hong Kong is back on track, and a number of mega international events will take place in November. The new talent policies are being rolled out at the right time, and it is hoped that the government, in particular its offices in the mainland and overseas, will grasp this opportunity to attract worldwide top talents. It’s part of Hong Kong’s attractiveness as a livable city for talents to live and work, with low tax rates, high salaries, and a vibrant lifestyle. Hopefully, the new policies will lower hurdles for talents to set down roots in Hong Kong and pave the way for Hong Kong’s further prosperity for years to come.
The author is founder and chairman of the One Country Two Systems Youth Forum.