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'Brain drain' and labour pains

Published on Friday, 07 Jan 2011
Tired students wait at an admission session for the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education. Some fear graduates may be unsuitable for skilled work amid a growing job-market mismatch.
Photo: Oliver Tsang

A report by the public-policy think tank Civic Exchange seems to confirm what many have suspected for some time: Hong Kong is threatened by a "brain drain", with its most educated, qualified and experienced workers aspiring to move somewhere greener - financially and environmentally.

The Classified Post, in a December 11 story, highlighted this issue based on a 2009 Gallup survey indicating that Hong Kong could lose its best and brightest, with other developed regions, such as Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, likely to benefit from a "brain gain".

However, the gain-drain equation is not that clear-cut. "I think the business talent flows into and out of Hong Kong are much more complex than a one-way brain drain," says Stephen Shih, head of the MBA career services and corporate relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST).

He believes "magnetic" forces have emerged across Asia, attracting talent from within and outside the region.

"Even as Hong Kong continues to attract talent, we also see talent leaving Hong Kong," Shih says, adding that more of its MBA students are considering opportunities not just in Hong Kong, but also in other Asian "magnet" cities, especially Shanghai and Singapore. "This is a recent shift," he says.

Shih thinks this flow of talent across Asia is determined by some kind of specialisation, with Shanghai seen as a stepping stone into the mainland and Singapore as the career gateway into Southeast Asia and India.

Professor Wong Yuk-shan, vice-president for administration and business at HKUST and president of the Society of Hong Kong Scholars, says that this brain drain is a fallacy.

"I'm very surprised about this," he says. "I don't think there is such a brain drain. It's actually quite the reverse now."

Wong says Hong Kong was probably losing its best minds 20 to 30 years ago, but as the city's living standards have improved, along with academic choices and economic opportunities, more professionals are opting to stay.

"We've been encouraging students to study abroad, but most are unwilling to do so because they are quite spoiled for choices here," Wong says.

While social-policy pundits are split over the implications of this brain drain - or whether there is such a phenomenon at all - Hong Kong appears to be caught in another conundrum: a growing mismatch between its graduates and the manpower needs of its frenetically shifting companies and industries.

Based on the latest Census and Statistics Department (CSD) survey, Hong Kong's supply of postgraduates and those with first-degree, subdegree, technical and vocational qualifications rose by 15 per cent to 100 per cent from 2001 to 2007.

But, for the same period, the CSD saw a persistent imbalance in the city's manpower resource. While a shortfall of 31,400 first-degree graduates and above was projected up to 2005, that gap likely grew to 36,500 by 2007. For post-secondary graduates, the shortfall was tipped to narrow from 85,500 in 2005 to 65,200 by 2007.

The financial crisis in 2007 might have diluted these figures, but the subsequent economic rebound in Hong Kong and continuing expansion on the mainland have probably accelerated the trend.

How about the pipeline for locally educated workers? The picture may not be that bad. According to the latest figures from the Education Bureau, the number of post-secondary enrollees increased from 224,000 in the 2004 school year to more than 296,000 in 2009.

And, while the number of primary students fell from 450,000 to 348,000 during the same period, secondary enrolment increased from 500,000 to 508,000.

The data indicates that a bigger proportion of secondary students is pursuing university and college education, a trend confirmed by the growing distribution of people who have finished degree courses - from 14 per cent of the adult population in 2004 to more than 17 per cent in 2009, the Education Bureau adds.

Whether these graduates could find local jobs that require their knowledge and skills is another issue.

"We do have enough jobs for people, but with the expansion of post-secondary education, there may be some mismatching there, especially for service-type jobs," Wong says.


Brain matters

  • HK's education spending shrunk from 4.2 per cent to 3.6 per cent of GDP from 2004 to 2009
  • For 2006, the figures were 4.5 per cent in Taiwan, 4.6 per cent in South Korea and 5.6 per cent in Britain


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