Hong Kong’s Secretary for Labour and Welfare Chris Sun attends the Straight Talk show on TVB, Nov 1, 2022. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Chris Sun is on the show. He talks about in detail how the Top Talent Pass and other initiatives to attract and retain talents to Hong Kong will work, and how the government will work to nurture local talents as well.

Check out the full transcript of TVB’s Straight Talk host Dr Eugene Chan’s interview with Chris Sun.

Chan: Good evening. This is Eugene Chan on Straight Talk. Chris Sun, the Secretary for Labor and Welfare is with us this evening and we will be talking about what Hong Kong must do to attract and retain talents. Sun has been with the government service since 1994, serving in various bureaus and departments. He was the Deputy Secretary for Food and Health, Financial Services and the Treasury, and then Commissioner for Labour in 2020, before being appointed to lead the Bureau of Labour and Welfare. Welcome, Chris!

Sun: Good evening. Thanks for having me.

Chan: So, Secretary, we had the Chief Executive John Lee here last week talking about his Policy Address. And one of his major initiatives was trawling for talents. Hong Kong has never been known to be short of people. But that seems like a trend right now. Is that true? And why is it suddenly that we have this crunch of people?

Sun: Yes, as you said, talent is clearly a major driver for our economic growth. It all starts with a backdrop. If you look at the size of our workforce, we compare where we were two years ago, that is the second quarter of 2020. And then we look at the size of the workforce by now, which is the second quarter of 2022. We’ve witnessed a decrease of 140,000. In terms of workforce, that is quite significant. If you look deeper into the breakdown of that statistics, the major decrease happens in the younger age group, i.e. those aged between 25 and 59. These are the prime age workforce, and we are witnessing quite a significant decrease in that sector of the workforce. If you look at the breakdown even more, we are losing in the past two years, around 88,000 workforce, who are highly skilled. So, there is an urgent need for us to take action.

Chan: Right, Secretary, because in Hong Kong, especially the last three years with COVID, everything's kind of changed. And, I mean, a lot of our businesses are suffering and all that. So, is this manpower crunch associated with the COVID period as well?

Sun: COVID could be one reason, but it's not alone. So, for us the challenges… when I reach out to the business community, one common theme, running through almost every conversation I had with them is they’re short of talent, talent at every level, but particularly at the middle to senior level.

Chan: Right. So, you're saying that one, we're mainly down with the youth workforces, fewer; and the middle management and the top management is also scarce, we are short of them. It's quite interesting because for many viewers, for many Hong Kong people, we always know that Hong Kong is a place full of people, it’s crowded, we want to avoid over congestion. And now suddenly, we have this manpower shortage, it’s quite hard to comprehend.

Sun: What you need is sufficient manpower, talent with a mix of skills to meet our economic needs. If you look at the size of our workforce, it peaked around 2018. And then it started to decrease a little bit. But the trend in the past two years is, the decrease is to such an extent that it calls for actions from the government to make sure that we have enough talents to drive Hong Kong forward in the coming years.

Chan: Right. So, Secretary, has Hong Kong ever experienced such a manpower shortage over the last few decades? Is it the first time?

Sun: We had what we call the brain drain problem. It happened in the ‘80s. And it also happened in the ‘90s. But each and every time we bounced back. It's all because, for talents, what concerns them most is opportunities. If Hong Kong remains a city of vibrancy, of opportunities, people will come back.

Chan: Right. So, just now, you mentioned that COVID could be part of the reason. And also we are lacking sort of very skilled people in the middle and top level. And how about, I mean, our borders are being closed with the mainland, and to some extent internationally until very recently … do you think that also has an impact on our manpower shortage?

Sun: It does have some impact on us. If you look at the number of talents from outside Hong Kong attracted here, if you look at the long-stay pattern, by long stay, what I mean is those who have a visa that is longer than 12 months, we see a decrease over the past two years. We used to have about 30,000 a year, coming to Hong Kong staying for beyond 12 months. But if you look at the past two years, the number is around 20,000. So, clearly, there's a drop.

Chan: Right. Before we go on to your initiatives how to attract talents, one area we would like to know more about is the youth. You said especially in the youth sector, we're seeing quite a significant drop in numbers. So, that means we are trying to recruit younger people internationally, right? But this can't be forever, we must get our locals to come and be trained with the right person as well. Do you see that trend continuing? Especially with the youth?

Sun: Of course, our emphasis is on the local youth. They are our most precious and important resources. We put a lot of effort, a lot of investment into our education, re-training even those who are already in the workforce, so that they can continue to upgrade themselves. We have a continued education fund. So, there's no doubt about the emphasis we put on local talents. But the situation right now is that they're just short of people, short of talent. And we need to bring in more people from the outside so that they can, together with the local talents, grow our economy to create more jobs for local people.

Chan: Right. So, what exactly will you be sort of… what policies or initiative will you be sort of pushing out to the world to get it happen? What will you be doing?

Sun: We are doing a multi-pronged policy response. So, first of all, we introduced the new scheme to attract talents from the outside, what we call now is a top talent pass scheme. That scheme has three components. The first part is for those whom we call high earners, who earn their annual salary about HK$2.5 million a year, they are welcomed to Hong Kong, irrespective of their background. And in the second category are those who are graduates of the top 100 universities in the world. They are elite, so we want them to come to Hong Kong. For those with more than three years of experience, they can come to Hong Kong without any quota. For those who have graduated recently, and they have a work experience less than three years, they are still welcome. But we have a quota of about 10,000 a year. So, this is what we call the top talent pass scheme. We also upgrade, enhance, and facilitate our existing schemes. So, it may give people … it’s easier for people to come to Hong Kong.

And more than that is, apart from the policy response in terms of loosening and to be more accommodative in terms of our admission schemes, it's also important for us to provide one-stop service. So, we have to serve the people to help them to go out and, and call people from around the world to come to Hong Kong. So, we're going to establish what we call a Talent Service Unit.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Chris Sun speaks to Straight Talk's Eugene Chan, Nov 1, 2022. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Chan: Alright, Secretary. So, with all those initiatives, it looks like we are definitely pushing in the right direction. I want to respond to a comment by one of our National People's Congress members, Bernard Chan. He said Hong Kong talent attraction schemes are not quick enough in terms of processing time, not broad enough in terms of talent categories, and also not generous enough in terms of support. How do you respond to that?

Sun: Yep. This time around, we're responding exactly to what Bernard has described as the shortcomings of our talent admission scheme. So, let's start with the first comment that they want certainty.

Chan: They want processing time.

Sun: They want processing time. So, if you look at the top talent pass, it’ clear, simple, i.e. if you look at the category, if you're high earners, you're welcome into Hong Kong. So, it's a no-brainer, it's a very straightforward criteria. If you look at those graduates from the top 100 universities of the world, it's clear. You just look at where you graduated from, we published the list. So, if you meet the criteria, these are clear, simple criteria, you can come to Hong Kong. So, first of all, we have absolute certainty in terms of top talent pass, but even look at the existing scheme. So, even you look at what you call the GEP (General Employment Policy), or the scheme for attracting mainland professionals and talents, we also put out a talent list. So, there are currently 13 categories of professions, which are short of talents. So, if you meet these criteria, you can come to Hong Kong, your employer does not have to prove that they have a local recruitment problem. So, these are all measures to make sure that we address what they call the certainty issue, the processing time. Also, the newly established talent service unit is going to help people. So, you can give them a call and ask about your visa applications. That unit is going to help you. So, we want to make sure that people feel being facilitated, they feel being welcomed in Hong Kong.

Chan: Right, there's also one thing he said was not generous enough. So, can we be more generous? Can we afford it?

Sun: I think the best way to attract talent is to create opportunities. You look at Hong Kong as a city of opportunities, where they can make money, build their own career in Hong Kong.

Chan: Right. So, with all these schemes, how are we going to broadcast it to the rest of the world? I mean, it's good that we talk about it on the show, talk about it in newspapers, but we have to get international people to be taking notice of it. So, how do we actually do the promotion?

Sun: I can't agree more on the need to promote and reach out to the world. So, one of the duties assigned to the talent service unit is to design and devise a strategy to promote Hong Kong to let all those talents outside of Hong Kong know that we want them to come to Hong Kong, and start their own career. Then they will work together with our economic trade offices all around the world, also our mainland offices.

Chan: Right, Secretary, we have to take a break now. But, viewers, please stay with us. We will be right back.

Chan: Thank you for staying with us! We've been talking with Chris Sun this evening about the shortage of talents Hong Kong is facing, and how we can overcome this. So, secretary, we have talked about the recent downturn in terms of manpower shortage in Hong Kong, and some of the possible reasons, and some of the initiatives the government is trying to do. And also, you just mentioned, before the break, one very important message is how to broadcast this important message to the rest of the world, so that they all come to Hong Kong. What if none of this works? Do we have a plan B?

Sun: I think this is going to work. Why I am so confident it is going to work is if … look at Hong Kong’s own attractiveness. We are a cosmopolitan city, we have rule of law, independent judiciary, and most important of all, if you're looking for opportunities in the mainland, Hong Kong is the best bet, the first choice. So, if you look at Hong Kong, all our strengths and core competitiveness, we are going to attract people who have an interest in developing a career around this region. So, we are quite sure that the target we set for ourselves, which is, we want to attract at least 35,000 a year, next year onwards, until 2025. So, I think we should be able to do it.

Chan: Right. Secretary, some of the professionals that we hope to attract, say for example, in the professional sector, like the medical profession or some of the banking internationals, I think being able to communicate with locals is very important, but do you think language will be some sort of a barrier in this sense? Because they are all foreign internationals, they might not be able to communicate very well with Hong Kong or even mainland, as you just mentioned.

Sun: I don’t think language will be a barrier. It depends a lot on the profession you are in. So, if you are dealing with financial services, of course if you speak English or even Mandarin, it will be perfectly okay. But if you are dealing with a lot of the local clients or local businesses, of course if you can speak Cantonese, it is going to help. But even for that language, I am sure there will be people who meet the criteria of the Top Talent Pass, or they can meet all the criteria under existing schemes, they can speak Cantonese. Just beware we have a lot of people around the world, they can speak Cantonese. And they have an interest in coming to Hong Kong to work.

Chan: So, we will be expecting a lot of talents from internationally, even from the mainland, from all parts of the world. So, we are going to have a good mixture hopefully to support Hong Kong to continue to prosper in our business world. That will be the plan.

Sun: I think that has been before in Hong Kong. So, if you look at the expat community in Hong Kong, it is a well mix of people, they have all different backgrounds. And that mix of expats is essentially determined by the economic landscape in Hong Kong. So, the theory behind that is if you have enough talents coming into Hong Kong, together with the strength and the future we have for Hong Kong, they are going to build Hong Kong into a better economy. So, what will Hong Kong be is more a diversified city … we are going to have developed into different centers. So, apart from our traditional strength as a financial center, we also want to build ourselves into a technology center, an aviation hub. So, these all require talents.

Chan: Right. So, secretary, before we move on to how we can retain them, because obviously in Hong Kong, we want them to stay on for the longest possible time. But something that I haven't read or heard is the government, with the current Policy Address, there aren’t any specific measures to try to attract those Hong Kong people that have already emigrated overseas, especially those students who are studying at universities abroad.  Because I know, for example, say in Australia, they do offer very attractive packages for students to continue to work there and stay there, even England as well. So, have you ever thought of anything to attract this group of people? I mean they will know Hong Kong the best.

Sun: Yes indeed. There is a global competition for talent. Before designing our own schemes, we look around the world. As you have said, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, even continental Europe. They are all putting in place various measures, and the purpose is to attract people into their own economies. So, for us, for those who are already Hong Kong residents studying abroad, we also want them to come back to Hong Kong and develop their own career. So, the Talent Service Unit I just mentioned, one of their job is also to reach out to our own local residents studying abroad. So, together with our ETOs, mainland officers, we also want to spread their message. So, apart from outside talents, our own local residents, if they are studying abroad, instead of just having them stay where they are studying, we want them to come back to Hong Kong. So, it's also one of our duties.

Chan: Right. As you said, you have to think of all angles because we are competing with the rest of world regarding talents. So, do we offer any sort of welcome packages or team to support them to come to Hong Kong? Because in the past, people just come and they find their own ways. I mean will you have anything like support them with education, help them to rent a place, or even for their spouses?

Sun: I think the facilitation is essential. But what we mean by facilitation, which is going to be provided through the Talent Service Unit, is they want more information beforehand. So, it's more than just an enquiry number. So, we will love to provide them with more detailed information, say if they have kids, they are looking for a course, we can provide more information about Hong Kong. If they are interested in certain courses, we can make an introduction for them or provide some more service. So, this is what we are going to do. Apart from that, of course, if they are to relocate from abroad into Hong Kong, they need to know about accommodation, there are a lot of nitty-gritties, but it bothers them. So, our job is to make sure that they feel welcomed here in Hong Kong, and we ease their way into Hong Kong.

Chan: So, something will be done to help them to settle in?

Sun: It will, it will. And that is the very purpose of setting up a Talent Service Unit.

Chan: Right.

Sun: So, we are going to provide what we call the one-stop service. And the outside talents, they know about the existence of that office, so that they can call it and they will be answered, and there will be FAQs. So, these are all important to make sure that they feel welcomed here in Hong Kong.

Chan: Right. Secretary, you know that … I read recently on Singapore. I mean Singapore is such a term that we use basically in every show because they are doing very proactive things to their foreign talents. Not only they offer very good terms to their potential talents, they even allow work permits for the wives and help them to settle in. I mean all that is very proactive. Are you aware of that?

Sun: Well, we are aware of the practices, not just in our neighbouring cities, but also in different, what we call, world class cities in the world. But if you look at our existing schemes, it’s not just targeted at the talents himself or herself, they can also apply for visa for their dependants. So, they can apply for visas for their spouse, for their children, it’s the same.

Chan: Right. I am sure a lot of viewers will be very excited to hear all the initiatives and the need for getting more talents. But how about the frontline workers? I mean there are still a lot of shortages and none of this scheme is really targeting for the frontliners. Many people in businesses have always found it difficult to find the junior staff. Anything that the government will do on this as well?

Sun: In the Policy Address, the Chief Executive also talked about the manpower situation. So, what we are doing is, apart from the talent part, when we look at Hong Kong’s manpower situation, I think the most acute and most urgent need for importing more foreign workers into Hong Kong is to be the carers in the residential care home. So, this is why he set out clearly that we are going to introduce a special scheme, and that special scheme will be administered by me as the PO in charge.

Chan: Right.

Sun: So, we are addressing this particular sector’s shortage. But in doing that, we put … of course, we have to make sure that local workers are given priority to work. But if despite all our efforts we are still short of local people to join that sector, we have to consider importing a certain number of foreign workers to help with our sector. In any way, they are taking care of our elderly, the disabled.

Chan: So, Secretary, I think you mentioned during our conversation so far that we are in shortage of talent and it won’t affect the upward mobility of our local youth. But if you look at recently with Hong Kong, surely the economy, everybody feels it is sort of slowing, with interest rate going up. All that is pointing to kind of moving into some sort of recession that the rest of the world is having. So being the case, are you sure that the upward mobility of our local talents will not be sort of affected by the incoming talents?

Sun: We always put the interests of our local people first, there's no doubt about that. But the challenge we are facing right now is we have to have a way to grow our economy. I think growth matters far more here in Hong Kong. So, we need a different mix of talents to help us to grow Hong Kong’s economy together. But you look at the interests and welfare of our younger generation, you will be aware that when we talk about the top 100 universities graduates, or the fresh graduates, younger graduates, we will put a quota to make sure that there is no more than 10,000 coming from that category. The reason behind this is that we want to make sure that it won’t make an impact on our local young people. So, we want to make sure that our young people are having the opportunity first, their interest being taken care of by us. But for us, as the government, we have to have a balanced view.

Chan: Right. Secretary, I am afraid that is all the time we have for tonight. And really thank you for coming. You have certainly reinforced our Chief Executive, John Lee’s determination to overcome this manpower challenge. And telling a good Hong Kong story now will be even more important to support this initiative. Have a pleasant evening and goodnight!