Attracting and Retaining Talent: Taiwan’s Challenges and Opportunities amid COVID-19

Written by Michael C.Y. Lin.

Image credit: 西門町 by tsaiian/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

Since the global outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, Taiwan has successfully controlled the pandemic. As of February 24, 2021, Taiwan had only 946 confirmed cases and nine deaths across a population of nearly 24 million. Early and effective containment measures prevented the country from going into full lockdown and enabled Taiwanese citizens to maintain normal, pre-pandemic lifestyles.

Taiwan’s success in battling the novel coronavirus has promoted its international image, attracting businesses, investment, and a skilled workforce to the country. These trends offer Taiwan a potential opportunity to deepen its talent pool. Over the past two decades, Taiwan has experienced stagnant real wage growth, driving out skilled domestic workers and discouraging overseas Taiwanese talent from returning to their homeland. In particular, talent outflow from Taiwan to China has raised serious concerns. From 2009 to 2019, the share of Taiwanese workers in China represented anywhere from 53.4 per cent to 62.2 per cent of the overseas Taiwanese workforce.

Taiwan also lacks an effective immigration policy designed to attract and retain foreign talent. In the Global Talent 2021 report, Oxford Economics predicted that as of 2021, Taiwan would have the highest talent deficit in the world. Taiwan also possesses some of the lowest fertility rates globally, approximately one child per woman. The nation’s deaths outnumbered births by nearly 10,000 in 2020, registering the first-ever negative population growth since the census began. All these factors pose tremendous challenges to enhancing talent reserves and promoting future economic development.

Ironically, COVID-19 has helped Taiwan retain and attract both local and international talent. Many overseas Taiwanese also moved back temporarily or permanently in the past year due to the pandemic. Taiwan’s successful response to the pandemic, coupled with its recent strong economic performance, has also drawn the interest of highly skilled foreign workers. The increasing number of holders of the Taiwan Gold Card (TGC), essentially a one to three-year employment authorization permit for skilled foreign workers, highlights this foreign talent inflow trend. TGC holders have doubled from 1,000 in September 2020 to 2,000 in February 2021, marking a growth rate never seen since the TGC program launched in 2018.

Despite this promising trend, the Taiwanese government should develop strategies to continue attracting and retaining international talent after the pandemic fades away. As the U.S. and Singapore have demonstrated, skilled immigrant workers can make significant contributions to a country’s economic growth. As more countries such as China and Japan follow suit, the global talent competition will become even more intense in the future.

Supplementing the TGC program, Taiwan currently leverages another platform called “Contact Taiwan.” One of its main goals is to attract foreign talent and help international students in Taiwan’s higher education institutions to stay and work in the country. The platform provides prospective immigrants with information regarding life in Taiwan, the economy, work visa applications, and space for sharing experiences, job opportunities, and events. In addition to government portals, TGC holders have also created different conduits, such as the Taiwan Gold Card webpage, to assist potential immigrants.

These governmental and non-governmental platforms play a role in facilitating talent inflow into Taiwan. However, Taiwan must address two major challenges to attract foreign talent and keep them for the longer term. The first obstacle is the language barrier that most immigrants face, given that English is not Taiwan’s official language. Although Taiwan’s government agencies and previous immigrants can offer early-stage guidance as new immigrants settle down, new immigrants and their families may face numerous daily challenges for basic activities such as shopping and banking, to name a few. This is a comparative disadvantage for Taiwan, as opposed to Singapore, where city-state infrastructure has been tailored for English speakers and foreign audiences. Improving overall English language fluency in Taiwan or training new immigrants to learn local languages will take time.

Even so, government agencies can do at least two things in the short run. First, they should refine existing information portals and public resources. For instance, there are different translations for TGC on different government websites. TGC refers to “Taiwan Gold Card” and “Taiwan Employment Gold Card” at the TGC portal, while TGC then becomes “Employment Gold Card” at the National Immigration Agency’s portal. The inconsistency across different websites may create confusion for applicants and discourage or delay applications. Second, government agencies should provide tailored policies, programs, and resources to reduce language barriers for newcomers. For example, the public sector can collaborate with existing TGC holders or educational institutions to help new immigrant workers regularly.

The second challenge is Taiwan’s relatively low levels of income. In 2020, Taiwan’s per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) was $28,383, which was significantly lower than the levels of its Asian counterparts, such as Singapore ($82,503). The relatively low income in Taiwan presents a challenge for the nation to attract international talent to its territory. Unfortunately, lifting income levels requires a structural change of the national economy and cannot be achieved overnight. Notwithstanding this challenge, Taiwan’s governments should continue to incubate and accelerate the nation’s high value-added industries, using policy tools such as tax incentives to encourage businesses to raise wages for workers.

In sum, Taiwan’s successful virus control efforts have attracted an increasing number of talented foreign workers. How the government addresses challenges such as language barriers, and income levels will influence Taiwan’s ability to attract and retain international talent and develop a robust workforce in a post-COVID world. Although language and income levels are two important factors that potential workers consider, they also consider many other factors. People who have travelled to Taiwan often note friendliness toward foreigners, convenient lifestyle, diverse and gourmet food, well-established public transport, and affordable healthcare as just a few aspects of the country’s appeal. As Taiwan’s government continues to improve Taiwan’s English infrastructure and income levels, it should also leverage these acclaimed assets in marketing Taiwan as a place for talent to thrive.

Michael C.Y. Lin is the President of Career Taiwan USA Association. Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the view of any organization the author is affiliated with.


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