Hong Kong’s Talent Challenge: Can the City Bounce Back from Crisis?

By Sarah Graham

Months of violent anti-government protests, and now coronavirus, have significantly dented Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe and easy place to live and do business.

Where once Hong Kong was an attractive prospect for foreign professionals seeking a change of scenery and greater economic opportunities, now it is in danger of slipping down global competitiveness rankings.

Seth Peterson, Senior Client Partner, Korn Ferry

I think those who know Hong Kong are more comfortable with the expectation that Hong Kong will come through this.”

Seth Peterson, Senior Client Partner, Korn Ferry

However, Hong Kong’s resilience in the face of past troubles, including the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the Asia financial crisis of 1997, would suggest it’s not time to write the city off just yet.

While the effect of the ongoing protests led to Fitch, one of the world’s biggest credit-rating agencies, downgrading Hong Kong’s sovereign rating from AA+ to AA, and the city’s outlook from stable to negative, last September, there are initiatives afoot to preserve the image of Hong Kong as Asia’s world city.

For the city’s recruiters, the negative impact that the protests and coronavirus has unleashed brings obvious challenges in attracting overseas talent to Hong Kong.

Seth Peterson, Senior Client Partner at management consulting firm, Korn Ferry, is an executive search consultant specializing in multinational clients in the APAC region for the industrial sectors. He says the protests had made it more difficult not only to attract talent, but to retain it.

“In terms of attracting overseas talent, and retaining talent in general, we’re seeing some departures of foreign families that are based here and local talent too. I have not seen a widespread exodus myself yet,” he says. “I’ve had a couple of cases of executives in the last five to six months with families that have relocated from Singapore and Melbourne and they both certainly had some reservations about moving their families here – and that was precoronavirus. They had safety and disruption concerns having seen what was happening here from news coverage.”

The global television coverage of the protests, Peterson concedes, conveys an image of a city in the grip of extreme violence that would be offputting to anyone considering accepting a job offer here. However, he says some businesses have been pragmatic in their approach to the issue.

“What I’ve seen companies doing to relieve concerns is to have those hires come earlier in the process, fly them in with their spouse and family members to see for themselves that even though the images on TV look pretty severe, it was fairly business as usual for the most part in Hong Kong,” he says.

With the limitations on global travel that have come with coronavirus – the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in February warned that falling demand for air travel would cost the airline industry USD29.3bn this year – the drive to attract foreign talent is even more challenging for Hong Kong, given its proximity to China where the outbreak is most severe.

“The situation with the virus has changed very rapidly in the last few weeks. But I think those who know Hong Kong are more comfortable with the expectation that Hong Kong will come through this,” Peterson adds.

More pressing, however, than the current bleak outlook for Hong Kong are the long-term prospects for the city in terms of attracting talent, according to Bruce Lee, a partner at PwC Global Mobility Services (Hong Kong).

Lee argues that while the current crisis is not to be taken lightly, business leaders in the city must prioritize addressing an existing skills gap in order to give Hong Kong a competitive advantage in the coming years.

A workplace will only be attractive to talent if it invests in upskilling people and embraces individuals with the right skills for the future.

Bruce Lee, Partner, PwC Global Mobility Services (Hong Kong)

Visas Issued Under the General Employment Policy

Industry/Sector20182019
Academic Research and Education4,9614,670
Arts/Culture3,4395,417
Commerce and Trade7,5115,834
Engineering and Construction1,1871,567
Financial Services5,0574,719
Information Technology1,3811,655
Legal Services464486
Recreation and Sports5,1806,534
Others12,41210,407
Total41,59241,289
Source: Immigration Department of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

On the protests, Lee points to 2019 immigration figures that show that, despite six months of social unrest, the number of visas issued for overseas professionals was only around 300 less than 2018.

“With companies and enterprises not operating in normal circumstances, that will have an impact on their hiring plans,” says Lee. But, he adds, Hong Kong still has a competitive advantage because of its low tax regime and its efficient immigration process – he cites that in 2018 “99% of all employment visa applications were processed in four weeks”.

The major challenge, Lee says, is how to address the skills gap and the effect of automation. PwC recently launched a global initiative, New world. New skills., to help businesses transform their
business and workforce.

“Upskilling the workforce for the digital future is key to address. A workplace will only be attractive to talent if it invests in upskilling people and embraces individuals with the right skills for the future. I was in Hong Kong during SARS – this will be over one day. How Hong Kong companies can create a future workplace to attract talent is key.”

Additionally, the Hong Kong Government has launched several initiatives to try to attract overseas talent to the city, including Talent List Hong Kong, which identifies 11 professions that the government deems important to the immediate and medium-term development of the economy. Within this sits the Quality Migrant Admission Scheme (QMAS), which allows 1,000 skilled workers to enter the territory without a job offer to allow them to explore business or startup opportunities.

Whether such initiatives will allay concerns about the safety of Hong Kong remains to be seen. But as we know, the city has bounced back from crises before.

“I’m an optimist and I do believe Hong Kong is a resilient place and it can recover very quickly,” says Peterson.

Talent List Hong Kong was created to attract high quality talent to Hong Kong across 11 professions: Waste Treatment, Asset Management, Marine Insurance, Actuaries, Fintech, Data Science & Cyber Security, Innovation & Technology, Naval Architecture, Marine Engineering,
Creative Industries, and Dispute Resolution & Transactional Law.

Among its other schemes designed to attract talent to the city, the government has introduced the Technology Talent Admission Scheme (TechTAS), which provides a fast-track arrangement for companies to admit non-local technology talent to undertake Research & Development; and the Admission Scheme for Mainland Talents and Professionals (ASMTP), which is quota-free and non-sector specific.

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