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An influx of talent is needed to remedy the IT drought facing Hong Kong companies

Published on Saturday, 06 Jun 2015
A cell phone shop in Mong Kok takes pre-orders of the iPhone 5

Information technology is among the professional services that are considered one of the four pillar industries of the Hong Kong economy.

Yet despite the government’s efforts to make the city an IT centre and attempts within the industry to raise its status, little progress has been made in achieving these goals.

One key issue is the lack of passionate new talent. The Hong Kong Vocational Training Council’s 2014 Employer Survey revealed the difficulty companies have recruiting IT employees. The top reasons were: a lack of applicants; disinterest in the company’s package; candidates lacking the relevant skills, expertise or relevant experience; and employers put off by the attitude of the candidates.

In 2014, the top three hot roles in IT were software developers/mobile application specialists, cloud-based solution technologists, and data warehousing and business intelligence specialists. We expect the talent demand and its shortage to continue for a few years.

Why are there too few local IT experts? There are two reasons - employers have not created attractive work environments and they use overly strict hiring requirements.

According to the 2014 Kelly Global Workforce Index, Hong Kong employees rate their environment using the following criteria: teamwork, flexible schedule, matrixed organisation structure, and whether innovation and creativity is encouraged in the workplace.

Apart from a few iconic organisations, such as Apple, Facebook and eBay, there are simply not many companies providing so much openness and flexibility. Many industries, including government, manufacturing and retail, place methodology, efficiency and effectiveness among their core values. Further, many IT roles are considered back-office functions, requiring candidates to work long and inflexible hours, often eating into evenings or weekends for system upgrades or testing. For example, software developers spend most of their time upgrading and enhancing systems. The tasks are mundane to many, requiring minimal team work or innovation.

To attract creative talent, Hong Kong employers need to review their job requirements and the environment they provide. One may argue it’s easy for Facebook and Apple to attract top talent with their strong branding. This is only partly true. Here’s an example: an American gaming client expanded into Asia without the leveraging power of better known brands. Instead, it used its culture to attract vibrant, creative individuals. Many of our IT candidates longed to work there after their interviews.

Instead of fitting a rigid template of skills and experience, candidates only needed to be “smart, passionate and creative”. The firm valued candidates with experience and skills from other industries, who could apply them afresh. The company did not penalise people for frequent job switching – as long as there was one-and-a-half to two years per job, as it saw the benefits of a wide exposure and an ability to learn quickly. I wish more companies would recruit based on potential. I also hope more of them will be willing to invest time and money to train their staff. The employment market is too used to poaching from competitors and expecting immediate performance with minimal investment. Instead, there should be greater efforts to nurture an internal pipeline of IT talent, with a clear path for career progression.

On the other hand, we’re finding it hard to locate technically strong IT professionals in Hong Kong. I feel this is partly because the city seems to lack passionate and talented people. Many job seekers think an IT career means working long hours with limited exposure, recognition and remuneration, when compared with other professions such as bank relationship managers, accountants or other business personnel.

While I have seen talented IT professionals top up their credentials with an MBA, then promptly switch to another field for a more “promising” future, I have also seen a passionate software developer who found his tasks interesting, challenging himself with different programming routes every time. Though the job nature may seem boring to many - enhancing systems on a recurring basis - his passion and interest shone through in the quality of his work. He was recognised as a fast-tracker and quickly promoted to a senior leader position.

Hong Kong is famous for being efficient, impromptu and competitive. Many candidates here are in a constant race to grab hold of the “best cards in life”. Yet this competitiveness and pragmatism may have actually undermined the desire of younger generations to follow their dreams. While attending university career talks and job fairs, I frequently get asked, “What is the hottest job this year and what’s the pay?” Many young job seekers are influenced by family and friends and fail to capitalise on their own interests and strengths. Instead, they determine their career direction based on the market’s “hot job index” and IT is not usually high on the list.

Being pragmatic and opportunistic may not be entirely bad, but we may become too used to pursuing what others think is best, suppressing our intuition and courage to venture into uncharted waters. Such pursuits are the portals to innovation and creativity and crucial for our next generation and society in general.

How can we attract and retain talented IT professionals? How can we create an IT work environment with a good balance between cost/efficiency and creativity? How can we transform IT from a supportive function to a proactive department that sparks entrepreneurial thinking and initiates value-added services? I long to see the emergence of more passionate and talented IT professionals in Hong Kong - or perhaps even the rise of an icon, like a local Steve Jobs.

However, this requires a paradigm shift in employers, HR professionals and society, so that they work together to offer solutions that will help the city sustain a favourable future and a healthy IT hiring climate. 

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