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In the face of a brain drain and skill shortage, learning agility is essential to build a sustainable talent pipeline, shares Nancy Shum, Human Resources Director of the Urban Renewal Authority (URA).

For a highly mobilised international city such as Hong Kong where people can easily come and go, retaining talent seems to have become harder. This issue has become more prominent amid a recent wave of emigration, which has impacted businesses across different sectors in the city.

A recent survey from the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce showed that a total of 38% of companies surveyed said they had been adversely affected by the loss of emigrating workers to varying degrees.

“I think it was quite a norm in the last six or eight months that most organisations faced the same problem,” said Nancy Shum, Human Resources Director of the Urban Renewal Authority (URA).

“It was a bit upsetting to see some of the staff who have been working in the company for over 20 years, and who have progressed well in their career, leave. It affected morale, but in reality, we have to face it.”

Generally, it was found that middle-aged employees, that is, those in the age groups of 30 to 40 were more likely to emigrate. However, from Shum’s observations, the brain drain was surprisingly seen among employees of all age ranges from the 30s, 40s and even 50s.

People decide to relocate for many reasons – personal development, family considerations, or a better living environment. Whatever the reasons behind it, local companies are often put to the same challenge: losing available and skilled talent.

And some of the skills and roles may not be able to be quickly filled. Take the URA as an example, the core businesses of the statutory body are redevelopment and rehabilitation, as well as preservation, revitalisation, and retrofitting to accelerate urban regeneration. These types of expertise are unique to URA and not easily found in other companies. If too many employees in the same team leave at the same time, it will affect performance, albeit for a short while.

“Fortunately we have our own succession planning, and talent assessment and pipeline initiatives,” Shum said. “But when we recruit or seek manpower resources, we have to follow some procedures and that takes a bit of time.”

For every challenge, there are new opportunities, and this is no exception when it comes to the emigration wave. The gap opened by the exodus of talent may serve as a door for internal mobility, especially upward mobility for younger generations and junior staff.

“There are opportunities for them, especially those with generic skills and knowledge,” she agreed.

“It’s just like a spiral effect. If we lose a manager, the assistant manager may be able to get promoted, the senior officer may be able to be promoted to assistant manager, and the officer can be promoted to senior officer.

“We open the posts to other departments as they may have someone good who can apply.”

Experience versus skill

This is a never-ending debate: when it comes to hiring or promoting an employee, which attribute is more important? A well-experienced person, or someone with less experience, but full of skills and potential? What kind of employees can bring more to the company?

“In the past, we emphasised on experience,” Shum explained. “Going forward, experience will still be important, but we have to be realistic in a way that we need to have the necessary skills and knowledge that are more important than experience.

“Experience would pick up after a staff settles down in the post. So we probably need to revise our career ladders and identify internal talent in order to cope with any potential employee attrition.”

In an ever-evolving world, what is trending today could be replaced by something else tomorrow. As the lifespan of skills and knowledge is getting shorter, she believes learning agility is the most important thing to have.

“For example in terms of data visualisation tools, previously you were an expert in Excel, now that has been replaced by Tableau. Five years later, another new software will appear so our people need to be agile to adapt to new things.”

On the other hand, we can’t forget about employees’ career aspirations being tied to their personal outlook. “People nowadays treat work-life balance so importantly that some of them put family first,” she said.

“If someone doesn’t want to be promoted, it could be because they don’t want added pressures in their family life. But after a couple of years, maybe your child becomes an adult and you have more time to pick up at work, and you can only do so provided you have the learning agility and the potential.”

Meanwhile, as experience will still be important, people with a wealth of information and knowledge are valuable assets for companies if their potential can be fully leveraged.

“We are open and fair to people of every age and race. It’s also happening we engage retirees who hold a key expertise or skill that is in short supply – special education, industry know-how and niche experience – as consultants,” Shum said.

“They don’t call themselves retirees, they are actually experts. They also form a very important part of our manpower pool. We call them consultants, in fact, we call them specialists.”

Learning is all that matters

Seeing that equipping talent with the right skills and right knowledge is critical, URA strives to cultivate a positive learning environment to help new, existing, and rejoined employees, succeed in their roles.

“Our learning platform was built two years ago, and it allows our subject matter experts to share their experience and knowledge either in a video or interactive e-learning programmes.”

Through this platform, URA staff can access learning resources anytime and anywhere to learn by themselves as long as they are willing and have the time. In addition, there are mandatory learning programmes for all new and existing employees. Shum said the authority would keep revising the training curriculum to ensure employees are provided with the important skills or programmes they need.

“We also value the people who help us build the training courses, because that is true subject matter expertise that can keep running via our platform.”

Recently, the URA adopted a new talent strategy and will launch a new HR system later this year. This system will help the authority build a skill-based pool to understand what types of skills are lacking and identify talent who is suitable for internal transfer.

Not everything can be remote

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, remote working has become the new normal and many companies see this as a way out for employee retention. However, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

“It may not be applicable to our organisation because of the kind of work we do. Our households are in Hong Kong and our staff have to visit the buildings physically,” she said.

“Our clients who apply for building rehab are mainly elderly people, they cannot access our services via mobile easily and they don’t know how to fill out the forms.”

Further, since urban design and planning involves a lot of drawings, papers, graphics, and data, employees working from home may not be as productive as they would be in the office, simply because their home devices may not be powerful enough.

“So it (work-from-home) cannot apply to all jobs in URA yet – but we never say never! We are currently exploring the feasibility of flexible work arrangements towards new ways of working with our diversified job roles.”

After all, in the face of an increasingly fierce talent landscape, companies need to be agile enough to build the right strategies, identify the right talent, and equip them with the right skills. As Shum stressed: “We can never stop learning.”


This article first appeared in the Q3 edition of Human Resources Online's Hong Kong e-magazine. View the e-magazine here, where you'll find power-packed features and interviews with leaders from Hong Kong, Singapore, and more!

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Images / Provided (Lead image: Nancy Shum, Human Resources Director of the Urban Renewal Authority)

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