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Hong Kong workforce desires digital upskilling. Fears losing jobs to technology automation.

  • 41% believe jobs will be made obsolete within the next 5 years

  • 39% are less confident of stable future employment, vs. 56% globally

  • 56% worry that automation is a threat to their jobs

  • 61% are confident to learn new skills or completely retrain to adapt to technology

  • 55% willing to learn but are hindered by lack of technology devices or infrastructure

  • Prefer a job that maximise income over making a difference, if forced to choose

PwC’s Hopes & Fears 2021 report, one the largest global surveys of workers, reveals the attitudes of workers on jobs security, reskilling and how the pandemic affects the world of work. The pandemic has accelerated a number of workforce trends, first being a shift to remote working, a strong desire for developing new skills and factors affecting future employability.

People embrace skill development, take responsibility for learning

A year into the pandemic has shown that Hong Kong workers can meet the challenges of adapting to new technology, and remote work through learning new skills to operate in virtual teams and deliver their work reliably, remotely and securely with technology tools.

Prolonged periods of remote working drove many workers to improve their digital skills - 61% say they are ‘ready to learn new skills or completely retrain’, but among the 55% willing to learn have been hindered by lack of technology devices or infrastructure. In Mainland China, this desire is more acute – 89% want to learn new skills so they can keep up with changing technology.

The survey found that people are given the opportunities to learn but technology access or infrastructure remains a major hurdle for people in Hong Kong to improve their skills and future job prospects. Approximately 36% in Hong Kong said they started the pandemic without adequate digital skills, but upskilling was experienced during the pandemic - 51% said their digital skills had improved. “The pandemic has seen companies make a significant shift toward skill-building and redeploying talent in an organisation to enable business transformation goals,” said Edmund Lee, PwC Hong Kong Consulting Leader.

Hong Kong workers feel that training is a shared responsibility between employers (76%) and themselves (74%) to keep up with changing technology.

The majority of Mainland Chinese workers surveyed reflects the country’s speed of innovation and connectivity to technology as a way of life, and an everyday experience of the Chinese workforce. On top of this, Mainland Chinese workers have widespread use of technology devices, ease of access to infrastructure like broadband or Wifi, coupled with an entrepreneurial culture and high consumption of consumer technologies, which lends to higher digital proficiency and use.

Johnny Yu, PwC Mainland China and Hong Kong People and Organisation Consulting Leader, comments: “This optimism bodes well for business leaders looking to building new skills and agility. “Remote working has forced people to learn new skills and has positively led to people taking on more ownership of one’s learning and career development, given the majority in Hong Kong want to retrain and learn new skills. Yet, companies have a shared responsibility to equip employees with digital skills to response to shifts in business demand and to bridge the skills gap.

The survey found that technology enabled people to work from anywhere - anytime and raises the digital skills necessary to work virtually. The positive outcome is that many companies are offering digital upskilling – as high as 83% in Hong Kong are getting training to develop their digital skills outside their normal duties. Edmund Lee remarks: “Employees with digital proficiency are able to adapt to new technologies in the workplace. The expansion of people’s capabilities and employability will fulfil the talent needs of a digital economy.”

The pandemic has accelerated a number of workforce trends, but the biggest worry to job security is automation - 56% Hong Kong, 51% Mainland China compared to 60% globally. That said, fears of automation as a looming threat to jobs is expected, made more acute during the pandemic due to economic insecurity, and disruption to industries.

Automation as a threat to jobs maybe more profound in Hong Kong, because automation of products and services have been rapidly adopted in financial services, one of the largest industries here. To tackle rising fears of jobs being made obsolete in 5 years’ time due to technology, employers must work together with governments, but are also responsible for upskilling the workforce.

“It is the responsibility of employers to redeploy existing talent to new roles that have been displaced by automation. Companies should offer upskilling opportunities to close the digital skills gap and move toward creating a sustainable workforce equipped with the skills to fully particulate in a post-COVID digital world,” says Johnny Yu.

Employees want to work remotely moving forward

For people who can work remotely, the survey found that 48% of workers wanted mostly remote working with some face to face as the ideal work environment, next to 72% global. This is particularly true of industries like professional services, where people are largely able to perform their jobs remotely using technology. A remarkably low percentage of 19% would like to go back to traditional work environment of mostly face-to-face.

However, if forced to choose, 61% Hong Kong said they prefer flexibility (‘To be in control of my work, what I do and when I do it’) over supervision. This compares to 48% globally and 51% in Mainland China. Diving deeper, the employee experience was more positive amid the pandemic when companies adopted hybrid working models, a key factor in an increased desire for greater flexibility over their time; made evident in their productivity levels remaining high during remote working periods.

In one positive pandemic outcome, workers proved they could transition quickly remote working while keeping productivity high. The successful shift to hybrid working reinforced the view - 61% gave preference of wanting greater control of how they work versus supervision.

“COVID-19 has seen a huge shift in workforce attitudes in flexible mindset and reskilling. The preference for virtual working will likely persist and require structural changes to support new norms. Employees are learning that productivity was not compromised during remote working. In fact, increased productivity and employee satisfaction drove people to want more control of their time at work,” said Johnny Yu.

Working for a purposeful organisation, but not at any price

Economic insecurity is limiting people’s ability to pursue purpose driven careers, with younger people particularly affected. Overall, 66% of Hong Kong workers polled said, if forced to choose, they would prefer a job that enabled them to ‘take every opportunity to maximise their income’ over a job that ‘makes a positive contribution to society’. Over 60% of Hong Kong workers wants to work for an organisation that will make a ‘positive contribution to society’ (vs. 75% globally). This is a positive reflection that the majority care about their employers’ purpose, and actions taken to make a positive contribution to society.

Optimistic outlook of the future of work

In particular, Chinese employers report much higher confidence about the future world of work, whereas Europe and the US are much more wary. Hong Kong stands at 44%, global 50% and 73% in Mainland China have a positive outlook among those between 18 to 54 years of age. The positive infers to ‘Confident – I know I will be successful.’ Globally, 56% are less optimistic of long-term stable employment, in Mainland China and Hong Kong, only 39% feels this way.

The disparity in optimism with Mainland China and Hong Kong workers is reflective of China’s rapid pace of innovation and modernisation over the past three years, and rapid industrialisation has been part of its national industrial policy to accelerate digitalisation and drive China’s economic development.

“For many Hong Kong employers, the rapid migration of digitalisation to remote teams and services have been supported with learning new digital skills to remain agile and market-centric, as businesses transitioned quickly at the onset of the pandemic. In fact, 83% of workers had received training opportunities to develop their digital skills outside their normal duties,” said Edmund Lee.

Overall, Mainland China and Hong Kong workers feeling a lesser impact to stable long-term employment reflects the current economic situation. Asian countries’ pace of recovery from the pandemic has been faster, with consumer confidence on the rebound compared to the economic hardship and wider job losses seen in other countries.


About the Global Hopes and Fears 2021 survey

In February 2021, PwC commissioned a survey of 32,517 members of the general public. Respondents included workers, business owners, contract workers, students, unemployed people looking for work, and those on furlough or who were temporarily laid off. The survey polled workers in 19 countries: Australia, Canada, China (including Hong Kong SAR), France, Germany, India, Japan, Kuwait. Malaysia, Netherlands, Poland, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, UAE, UK & the US.

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