The young shall save the old (if we train them!)

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Dr. Winnie Tang, Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong 

The most talented workforce in Asia. What a great title to have. Serious bragging rights.

And what a title to lose.

According to November’s World Talent Report, published by IMD of Switzerland, Hong Kong has fallen from its lofty perch to a lowly third place, behind Singapore and Australia.

Much public discussion has ensued. On this issue, I have the following two observations of specific criteria in the report.

Firstly, the ability to solve problems is more critical.

Hong Kong ranked 56th in the list of “total public expenditure on education” across the world, due to the fact that public expenditure on education amounted to very low percentage of GDP. At 3.3%, it is even lower than Kazakhstan’s 3.6%.

However, there are other countries with a similarly low percentage public expenditure on education, such as higher ranking Singapore (2.8%, ranked 60th), and Japan (3.3%, ranked 57th). But according to OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tested science, mathematics and reading ability of 15-year-old students from 72 economies around the world once every three years, Singapore was the champion performer in all the categories in the previous assessment, while Hong Kong and Japan secured the second place.

Though investment in education by government is important, the figures could sometimes be misleading. I think students’ ability to apply their knowledge in solving problems is even more important.

In the Chief Executive’s 2018 policy address, annual funding of HK$900 million was proposed to provide “comprehensive learning allowance” to public and DSS schools to facilitate students stepping out of their classrooms to broaden their horizons.

The capability to apply the knowledge gained from the online and bool-learning worlds in real life is something that young people really need to strengthen.However, it is a daunting task for teachers and parents to determine how to teach to bridge that gap.

Theory, meet practice

Recently, the Chief Executive of the Singapore Land Authority spoke at the United Nations, pointing out that two kinds of abilities are required to solve problems: (1) spatial mindset – because over 80% of the data involves locational elements, young people should develop the ability to think about how we can use location and geospatial data to solve problems ; (2) Diverse skill sets – R&D today is more about the application of technology to different areas, rather than just discussing pure science. Equipping students with diverse knowledge can help them to develop novel, combinatorial technological applications in different situations.

In the past two years, the Education Bureau’s interdisciplinary competition on Climate Change and Smart City was a good start, especially through experiential learning activities to increase learning interest and self-learning ability, preparing our young people for the future.

Youth, help the elderly

Secondly, to engage young people is the key to solving our ageing problem.

In the World Talent Report, Hong Kong’s ranking in the area of “labour force growth” was merely 34th, suggesting that hong Kong’s labour force is in a slow-growth mode. This can be a problem when jobs in high demand sectors are going unfilled.

Coincidently, just two days before the report was published, Dr. C K Law, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, mentioned in his blog that Hong Kong will need three times more caregivers by 2041. He saw the target as impossible to fulfil.

The challenge of an ageing population is getting more serious not only in Hong Kong but also across the developed nations. However, in Hong Kong, it seems that the local education sector, social welfare sector and even the government have no plan to be part of solving this challenge. There seems to be no thought given to engaging young for their ideas or to attract them to join fields connected to  gerontology or preparing for an ageing demographic.

Japan is a country with a large ageing population. It is expected that there will be 370,000 caregiver vacancies by 2025. In a country that has struggled with low birth rates for decades, the government encourages full utilization of innovative technologies, including the internet of things (IoT), robotics, artificial intelligence and big data to closely link virtual world with reality, to enhance the quality of living of elderly at both elderly homes and their own homes (such as predicting their need to go to washroom).

Thus, many new types of work have emerged, from designing sensors and IoT networks and monitoring of life science statistics to establishing social behaviour patterns and predicting disease models. So that the work is no longer limited to traditional care, rewriting the status and image of workers for caring the elderly has become an imperative. Simple caretakers become gerontology engineers. Combined with on-the-job training, it is expected to attract more young, energetic and innovative workers into the industry.

Hong Kong needs to get future ready!

But Hong Kong seems to be falling down on the talent ladder right when it needs our young people to become more, not less, talented to face the challenge of ageing in our society.

The World Talent Report is no doubt to employers in all industries considering where to put their businesses in a competitive Asian marketplace. But locally, we need to ensure that our education delivers the talented workforce needed to face the challenge of an ageing workforce.  Youth and vitality, properly channelled by education to develop a talented workforce, will make our society perennially youthful!

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