Holding on to Taiwanese talent

By Tsong Tien-tzou 鄭天佐  / 

Mon, Oct 01, 2012 - Page 8

Recently, the decline of Taiwan’s political and economic status in the international community has become a hot issue. Not only has Taiwan dropped to last place among the four Asian Tigers, but it is also lagging behind many other Asian countries. Some have concluded that the problem lies in Taiwan’s dearth of talent, a situation that has reached worrying levels.

How can this be? Taiwan has one of the highest rates of university graduates as a percentage of its population and several prestigious universities have been rising in the rankings year on year. Take National Taiwan University (NTU) for example: NTU has taken the lead among most Asian public universities in various international rankings.

Many professors teaching at Taiwanese universities have graduated from renowned Western universities, so schools have outstanding faculties and staff.

In addition, young Taiwanese often perform well in numerous international technology and innovation competitions. So why the lack of talent here? What is the cause of the problem? Perhaps we can review the issue from the different aspects listed below.

First, a country needs a diverse workforce. However, in Taiwan the expectations of parents and wider society, and the way subjects are taught in isolation of each other, has meant that huge amounts of money are spent producing an excess of students trained in academic disciplines, instead of creating the diverse workforce that society truly needs in order to progress. Taiwanese parents want their children to enter leading schools when they are young and major in medicine, business, or engineering at university.

They do not encourage their children to develop diverse interests and talents and they even prohibit them from doing so, forcing them to go in other directions.

Second, society places too much emphasis on one’s status or wealth. In Taiwan, people respect successful businesspeople and government officials. Since these people are excessively valued, they are able to affect not only individuals, but also ideas and policies throughout government and society.

In other words, opinion in Taiwan is overly monolithic, and this is restricting our national development.

Third, Taiwan’s educational leaders lack the confidence and refuse to believe that they can train world-class talent. They deeply believe that Taiwan’s lead among the four Asian Tigers in the 1980s was the result of large numbers of young people going to study abroad, especially in the US, in the 1960s and 1970s. They ignore the fact that Taiwan’s economy actually started to take off in the 1970s when its talent first started going abroad. Indeed, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many gifted Taiwanese who had studied overseas in the US and Europe returned and significantly improved Taiwan’s industrial and social structures.

Still, it is difficult to get away from the fact that, in the new century, Taiwan will be lagging behind many Asian countries in terms of progress.

Therefore, my conclusion is: The talent drought is not the only reason for its slow progress at the moment.

Fourth, given Taiwan’s economic downturn over the last few years, the future is rather bleak, as inflation becomes more significant. Salaries for new university graduates have remained stagnant for 10 years, and in some cases have even decreased and become uncompetitive internationally. How can we expect to retain talent given such circumstances, let alone attract talent from abroad?

Talent flows are a fact of a deregulated global society, and the point is how to attract talented people and to convince our own to stay in the country. Yes, salary is a key factor.

However, the quality of working and living environments, and whether workers can expect to be respected and treated fairly here would also affect their willingness to stay, to recruit new blood and develop a sense of loyalty for their jobs.

Fifth, the squabbles between the blue and green camps, and the fact that people are finding it difficult to differentiate between Taiwan and China, given the government’s “one China” principle and its pro-China cross-strait policies, are making the situation worse.

People are attracted by China’s rise, salary flexibility, and the encouragement by Taiwanese businesspeople there, so Taiwanese talent is continuously relocating to China, turning it into the biggest attraction of Taiwanese talent in the world.

As many large companies have made the move to China, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Taiwan to attract world-class talent. As the talent flow is all one way, the result is a “hollowing out of talent.”

To remedy the above problem, Taiwan first needs to build its own “identity” in the international community.

It then needs to create an environment beneficial to the operations of world-class enterprises.

It should encourage Taiwanese companies to return and reward international ones that establish factories and branches here. If that happens, outstanding talent worldwide would certainly come flooding in.

Tsong Tien-tzou is a member of the Academia Sinica.

Translated by Eddy Chang