Analysis: Millennial expats return to work in Hong Kong

City benefits from ‘great brain gain’ of young workers, keep to explore the economic opportunities it has to offer

Hong Kong has long been used to stories about ‘brain drains’ – talented youngsters lured to work abroad having had enough of the city’s high prices, overcrowding and pollution. But something is changing.

Montreal, Melbourne, Michigan, in fact just about anywhere looks better to millennials than somewhere like Mong Kok – a gritty section of Kowloon with a population of around 130,000 per square kilometre, where high rises blot out the sun and there’s little in the way of open space. The prospect of paying in the region of US$2,000 per month in rent, for a 25-square-metre studio apartment, scarcely makes residency alluring.

But 2017 is witnessing a new trend dubbed ‘The Great Brain Gain’, and it’s coming from an unlikely source. Rather than Chinese flocking back to the city of their birth, expatriate children who grew up in Hong Kong are returning to explore the opportunities being offered on the doorstep of one of the world’s most powerful economies.

Having finished university and completed perhaps two or three years in their first job, they’re buying a one-way ticket to board ‘Flight 852’ – a jocular reference to Hong Kong’s international telephone code.

HR veteran Andrew Simmonds has been observing the brain gain with more than a little interest. “Expat millennials are bringing in good, diverse cultural understanding – especially if they’ve spent part of their childhood overseas or been educated there,” said Simmonds, managing director of local recruitment firm Talent Tree.

“That cultural understanding is invaluable in an increasingly global Hong Kong market. To add to that, the returnees will speak English, and some Cantonese and/or Putonghua, as well as belonging to local and global networks. All that adds up to well-rounded, worldly people, who are attractive to multinationals when compared against candidates from a purely local background,” he says.

However, many of the brain gain community are shunning paid employment for a chance to strike out on their own, inspired by Hong Kong’s legendary entrepreneurial spirit and lack of red tape when it comes to setting up in business. Brain gainers who were born in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) encounter few problems in gaining permanent residency, while a one-year business registration certificate costs just HKD2,000 and can be issued in around 30 minutes.

“Entrepreneurship does seem to be a trend, and in many ways it’s exciting and admirable to see people in Hong Kong making their own way,” said Simmonds.

“Millennials also seem to have a penchant for non-profits and social enterprises – doing something good appeals to them perhaps younger in life than it might have for the generation before,” he said.

“It’s fair to say millennials are often optimistic and confident, as well as idealistic,” added Simmonds, who said he sees the entrepreneurial trend as a positive thing for Hong Kong: “Motivated people looking to get in, work hard, apply global skills and ideas and do new and better things”.

While there are no official figures on the number of brain gainers setting up in Hong Kong, informal estimates number them in the low thousands.

“At Talent Tree, we typically deal with senior roles, so we don’t work with too many millennials directly,” said Simmonds. “But the candidates and clients we work with often have millennial children returning to Hong Kong, and they sometimes ask us to mentor or guide them.”

The expat brain gain marks a sharp reverse in Hong Kong’s population flows, especially given the recent arrival of many Mainland Chinese residents. Talent poured out of the city in the run-up to the handover in June 1997, only to flood back in subsequent years when it became apparent that capitalism rather than communism remained the dominant ethos. More recently, between 2015 and 2016, the American population in the country dropped by 8 per cent, while one in ten Britons left for other shores, according to data from the Hong Kong Immigration Department.

Jack Wagner is a typical example of the new breed, having attended high school in Hong Kong and found a job in London. He later resigned to return and set up a non-profit organisation which finances renewable energy projects with two fellow brain gainers.

“A lot of my old Hong Kong friends are doing the same,” he said. “Millennials are moving back because they want to live in Hong Kong, because they couldn’t find the quality and unique aspect of life they find so attractive anywhere else.

“Not only are many of these returning expats highly qualified and skilled individuals, but many of them are also very entrepreneurial, setting up their own apartment renovation or trading business. Many intend to stay long-term, and we will therefore be seeing a new generation of Hong Kong-raised expat professionals climbing up the social ladder and becoming leaders of a diverse community in the coming decades.”

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