Taiwan grapples with 'talent shortfall'

Ms Ruby Lin joined Singapore cashback portal ShopBack last year. "Many of us feel we have hit a ceiling... There are not many regional offices or headquarters in Taiwan for us to grow and advance our careers," she says.
Ms Ruby Lin joined Singapore cashback portal ShopBack last year. "Many of us feel we have hit a ceiling... There are not many regional offices or headquarters in Taiwan for us to grow and advance our careers," she says.PHOTO: SHOPBACK

Up to 30,000 professionals leave each year, lured by better pay in places such as S'pore and China

Hard pressed to find a new job in Taiwan that would pay better and grant more days off, radiographer Chang Chia Ling decided to look beyond the island.

After breezing through interviews with Singapore's Health Ministry officers, who were recruiting talent in Taiwan, she dropped out of her radiology master's degree course and left for Singapore in 2012.

"Even if I graduated with my master's degree, I knew I was not going to find a job that matches the salary in Singapore and offers the experience of working overseas," said Ms Chang, 32, who signed a two-year contract to work as a radiologist at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

She got a raise of 50 per cent over her last-drawn pay and also got 21 days of annual leave, three times more than what she got back home.

Ms Chang has since renewed her contract twice. Last year, she was promoted to senior radiologist.

"It is not just about getting a higher salary. Over here, I'm learning and doing a lot more because I also get to discuss patient cases with doctors," said Ms Chang, who spoke to The Straits Times from Singapore. She is now applying to become a Singapore permanent resident as she looks to settle down with her boyfriend of two years.

Ms Chang is among the 20,000 to 30,000 professionals a year who have left Taiwan for better-paying jobs overseas over the past decade.

Statistics from the National Development Council show that the number of Taiwanese working abroad more than doubled from 340,000 in 2005 to 724,000 in 2015.

More than 70 per cent of them have at least a bachelor's degree and hold white-collar jobs.

And as many as 58 per cent are based in China, while 15.4 per cent head to South-east Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia.

Employers in countries such as Singapore said they are willing to pay top dollar to hire talented Taiwanese employees.

Said Singapore cashback portal ShopBack co-founder Joel Leong, who set up a Taiwan office last year: "They are willing to work hard and have the expertise that cannot be found in Singapore.

"So we will want to offer competitive salaries to get them to come over to plug the talent gap."

Taiwan's Commonwealth magazine, quoting London-based research firm Oxford Economics, reported that the talent exodus will cause Taiwan to suffer the biggest "talent shortfall" in the world by 2021. This is defined as the mismatch in the demand and supply of talent. Taiwan faces the largest talent deficit of -1.5 per cent, compared with -0.4 per cent for Singapore and 0 per cent for China, which has no mismatch.

Taiwan's ageing population has added to its labour blues. Last year, its labour force grew by a meagre 0.08 per cent, compared with Singapore's 0.4 per cent. The talent crisis worries Taiwanese premier Lin Chuan, who acknowledged that it is hard to retain good people as wage levels are generally low in Taiwan.

Data released by the Ministry of Labour last Thursday shows that the average monthly starting pay of a university graduate is about NT$28,116 (S$1,290), up only NT$100 from NT$28,016 in 2000.

Said Mr Lin: "It's difficult to stop mainland China and Singapore recruiting Taiwanese talent because our wages are lower. So what can we do? We can open up in the hope that other people come in."

But the Taiwanese government is also grappling with an anaemic economy, with growth sliding from an average of 8 per cent in the 1990s to 1.5 per cent last year - due to a drop in exports and declining investment in Taiwan as more local companies move their production lines to cheaper labour markets in China and South-east Asia.

The bleak market has dimmed job prospects and shrunk pay cheques - monthly wages have inched up by about 3 per cent since 2005, while housing prices have tripled.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate has hardly come down. April's unemployment rate was 3.67 per cent, down only 0.19 percentage points from a year ago.

The Taiwanese government is trying to both retain talent and attract more foreign professionals. It has rolled out measures such as easing visa and residency requirements for foreigners and offers incentives for overseas firms to set up shop in Taiwan and groom talent.

It is also trying to pour more money and resources to boost the biotechnology and green technology sectors, and revitalise the local defence industry to create more better-paying jobs.

But that may not be enough to lure overseas Taiwanese like software engineer Ruby Lin to return home.

The 33-year-old left home-grown tech company Asus last September to join ShopBack as a search engine optimisation manager in Singapore.

"Many of us feel we have hit a ceiling... There are not many regional offices or headquarters in Taiwan for us to grow and advance our careers."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2017, with the headline 'Taiwan grapples with 'talent shortfall''. Print Edition | Subscribe