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Hong Kong - Social Unrest & the Talent Tangle

almost 3 years ago by Mathew Gollop

​Having lived in Hong Kong for over 18 years, raised a family and built a business here, I have my personal views on the current crisis that surrounds us. This article however is purely my observations on the immediate and potential longer term impact on the employment market and not a political commentary.

With the economy shrinking for the first time in a decade, it is clear that Hong Kong is tackling some turbulent times. From a recruitment perspective we identified a deceleration in activity, prompted by the global trade issues, from the tail end of 2018 and so a slower 2019 was not a surprise. The duration of the local protests however have taken their toll and the confidence that had begun to return in the 2nd and 3rd quarters has been extinguished and the year end will be very challenging.

Unlike previous downturns, the financial markets seem to be weathering the storm more effectively with the protests localising a devastating impact on sectors on the front line, namely retail, food & beverage, hospitality and tourism. Whilst employer confidence seemed to remain reasonably stable through Q3, it is now weakening and, more so, we see candidate's becoming more risk averse and so open roles will become increasingly harder to fill. One positive trend that we are seeing as a result is that there is a greater interest in contract and interim hiring as clients look for faster and more flexible talent solutions so candidates who are immediately available should consider this as a route to re-employment.

Another perspective was jogged when I was recently asked to speak on a radio show in Singapore on this subject and they seemed keen to craft the narrative that expatriates are leaving Hong Kong and that it will be harder to attract them in the future. Anecdotally I would say that both Western and Asian expats in Hong Kong are of course concerned about the future but, as yet, we have not seen a concrete trend of departures. Conversely, applications from overseas talent looking for opportunities here are (maybe surprisingly) as high as they have been for a number of years. Locally there are signs that Hong Kong nationals are hedging their bets with signs of increased interest in migration, again without signs that this is an actual trend in practice.

I am in no doubt that the employment market will find its feet again, likely even before the wider healing that needs to occur has had an impact.

If the unrest is more sustained and talent (both local and international) does begin to leave then how will that gap be closed? This 'brain drain' could also be compounded by an ageing population and a larger than normal proportion of the younger generation carrying criminal records which will leave Hong Kong looking increasingly beyond its borders to resolve the issue. With the protests creating an all consuming visceral and immediate issue and government intervention seemingly lacking, these longer term questions are yet to be asked, let alone answered. Organisations would do well to start planning in advance for this potential.

On the positive side, one of the factors that prevents an exodus of people is that there is a high degree of faith in Hong Kong's resilience and ability to rebound. I arrived at the end of the post-97 Asian Financial Crisis surge and during my time here I have seen the market recover from SARS (after being written off by many), the 2008/9 Global Financial Crisis and the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests. We are of course in the midst of something new, a deeper societal crisis than has been experienced before, but I am in no doubt that the employment market will find its feet again, likely even before the wider healing that needs to occur has had an impact.

If you would like to discuss the Hong Kong talent market, please feel free to drop me a note at