Retaining Vietnamese Talents in Taiwan

Written by Huynh Tam Sang and Tran Hoang Nhung.

Image Credit: 台大 by neverbutterfly/Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0

In her 2020 inaugural speech, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) raised the issue of talent retention, underlined the need for “a diverse talent pool” with her commitment to attract “technical, R&D, and management talents to help globalize Taiwan’s workforce.” Furthermore, when attending the release of the Talent Circulation Alliance white paper in June, she said the government would be committed to “[developing] more innovative talent” to meet the shifting of supply change to Taiwan and navigate challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In her National Day speech of the same year, President Tsai stressed that Taiwan would “continue to deepen reforms and eliminate obstacles to create an environment and legal structure” to attract international talent, affirming her strong commitment to talent cultivation. 

However, the demographic crisis may undermine the Tsai administration’s efforts. Taiwan is set to move from an “aged” society in 2018 to a “super-aged” one by 2025 due to a falling fertility rate and a rapidly ageing population, posing a burden on the government. Moreover, the imbalance of Taiwan’s population demographics causes an overload on Taipei’s healthcare system and raises concern over workforce shortage. The direst situation in Taiwan is when facing talent shortages in local industries. This is a need for those with advanced education to sustain their economic growth.

The logic of retaining Vietnamese talents in Taiwan

Amid Taiwan’s shortage of labour force, retaining Vietnamese students could help the Tsai government navigate this demographic challenge. Strategically, this could bolster a people-centric approach, as highlighted in Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP).

Vietnamese students follow various domains in Taiwan, notably business administration, multimedia, information technology, hotel and tourism, biotechnology, electronics, and pedagogy. In 2020, there were 17,030 Vietnamese students studying in Taiwan, making Vietnam the largest source of overseas students in Taiwan for the first time. The growing presence of Vietnamese students studying in Taiwan has been largely due to the thrust of Taiwan’s NSP. With the NSP Promotion Plan, the Tsai Ing-wen government focused on talent exchange with NSP countries, including education ties, industry talent, and new immigrants. 

Taiwan provided an abundant source of scholarships through academic and job training programs in terms of education ties. The Ministry of Education offers Taiwan’s scholarships, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the International Cooperation and Development Fund, and universities and academic institutions with 40%, 70% and 100% tuition waivers.

Tsai’s government has invested many budgets on deepening Taiwan’s engagement with Vietnam through scholarships. The number of Taiwan scholarship quotas for Vietnam’s freshman awardees from 2016 to 2020 are highest among other New Southbound nations. Notably, the number of Vietnamese students choosing Taiwan as their study destination has increased by 330 per cent in the 2018-2020 period. In addition, Taiwan’s 2020 education higher fair held virtually attracted over 6,000 viewers in Vietnam, seeking information and opportunities offered by Taiwanese universities.

Vietnamese students are interested in advancing their academic path in Taiwan. Indeed, this is considering the archipelago nation as a favourable destination with high educational quality, a diverse range of academic majors, reasonable tuition fees, relatively low cost of living, friendly local people, low crime rate, and a well-developed medical service system. Those without education loans can afford to cover their tuition fees and living expenses by seeking part-time jobs.

Taiwanese customs and culture bear some similarities with those of Vietnam, e.g., sharing Confucian values, considering hard working as the proper leverage for prosperity, making it easier for Vietnamese students to adapt and integrate with the new environment. Furthermore, the distance between Taiwan and Vietnam is around 1,708 kilometres, so Vietnamese students could return to their country when needed. In addition, Taiwanese firms have considered Vietnam as an excellent destination to establish their manufacturing bases. This has attracted Vietnamese students to target Vietnam-based Taiwanese companies after their graduation.

Initially, Vietnamese students—like those from other countries—need time to adapt to the new environment. Self-supporting students must apply for work permits to earn money to cover their study and living expenses. However, Vietnamese students face some nuanced challenges. Taiwan’s academic programs are designed for Chinese or English teaching and learning, with a few curricula covering the two languages. To Vietnamese students, both English and Chinese are foreign languages, posing specific difficulties for them. On the other hand, some nations are well-equipped with the use of language. English has been widely used throughout India, and to a lesser extent, Malaysia; Ethnically Chinese diasporas in Indonesia and Malaysia also often have some level of fluency in Mandarin, or even use it as their primary language. 

Efforts conducted by governments from both sides helped forge education ties. For example, to reduce the paperwork burden, Taiwan and Vietnam reached a consensus in 2019 to recognize each other’s academic records, issued by 246 Vietnamese higher education institutions and 168 Taiwanese universities and colleges. In doing so, Taiwan seemed to align with Vietnam on the grounds of higher education cooperation. Moreover, amid COVID-19, some Taiwanese universities are active in signing memoranda with their Vietnamese counterparts, aiming to enhance mutual understanding and to attract Vietnamese students’ pursuit of higher education in Taiwan.

However, the overall picture of Vietnamese students learning in Taiwan is that, after their graduation, most of them prefer to return to their homeland and seek preferred occupations. What is missing here is that Vietnamese graduates, on their return to Vietnam, seem to lose their connections in Taiwan. This has undoubtedly weakened bilateral education ties and even made Taiwan’s policies of enhancing education linkages with Vietnam less appealing.

At least three reasons are explaining why Vietnamese students leave Taiwan after their graduation. First, Vietnamese students receiving Taiwanese government scholarships are committed to returning to Vietnam after their graduation. As such, the probability of elite students seeking employment in Taiwan is much lower. Second, students are preferring to contribute to the development of Vietnam after acquiring advanced knowledge in Taiwan. Third, most Taiwanese companies require Vietnamese students to possess the mandarin language at an intermediate level or higher. Hence, students pursuing programs taught entirely in English could either come back or pursue higher education in English-speaking nations that encourage international students to hunt for work there.

Taiwanese companies have been shifting their supply chains away from China and setting up production bases in Taiwan and Vietnam. Thus engaging Vietnamese young candidates in Taiwanese enterprises located in both countries should stand among the priorities of Tsai Ing-wen’s administration. Vietnamese students graduating from Taiwanese universities or colleges are native speakers of Vietnamese and have become accustomed to social life in Taiwan. Language and culture are among essential considerations that Vietnamese students can offer, and Vietnamese staff being familiar with the local business culture could prove as potential candidates that Taiwanese firms should target. 

A comprehensive academic database may help

As the Internet is far-reaching and proves beneficial to keep people in touch, an online database of Vietnamese graduate students studying in Taiwan should be established to fit well into Taiwan’s ambitious NSP. Vietnamese students’ background, performance, orientations, as well as their work-seeking aspirations after graduation, should be priorities to be incorporated into the database. 

Taiwan’s higher education institutions should be advised to evaluate students’ performance and their academic experiences. By reviewing Vietnamese students’ expectations and experiences, higher education institutions can join hands with the government to enhance the credibility and comprehensiveness of the online database.

This sort of “academic storage” may serve to provide essential leverage, from which Taiwan’s educational institutions and entrepreneurs could pick up promising ones, then offer them with high-paid salaries and facilitation for their work in Taiwan. Before their official admission, potential candidates should be offered internship opportunities to get them engaged in Taiwan’s socio-cultural and business environment. These potential skilled migrants can help navigate the talent drought in Taiwan.

Regarding Taiwanese employers, they should be encouraged to interact effectively with the government to access the online database instead of pursuing the traditional strategy of scouting campuses for young graduates. In engaging with the government’s online database, Taiwanese companies should cultivate prospective Vietnamese graduates, facilitating their work in Taiwan for several years before they are appointed to higher white-collar positions in their home country. 

Even when some talent-seeking companies have stretched their hands to Southeast Asian graduates, potential Vietnamese talents should be encouraged to apply for Taiwan-based jobs in line with their ability, expectations, and experiences. The spill-over effect can generate positive perceptions among promising students seeking post-graduate work in Taiwan. 

Prioritizing talent retention: Lesson from Canada

Canada, a typical case of drawing talents through education and immigration policy, can offer an experience for Taiwan. As the benefit of attracting international students is considerable, contributing over 21 billion dollars annually to its economy, Canada has invested massively in education and supported job opportunities for international students showing intention to work in Canada after finishing their studies.

The Canadian government initially introduced the Global Skills Strategy (GSS) in November 2016 and the new GSS in 2017 to leverage the recruitment process of global talents. One prominent feature of the strategy is short-duration work permit exemptions. The first case is for highly skilled workers, “whose jobs are listed under the skill type 0 (executive, managerial) or A (professional) of the National Occupational Classification,” and the other exemption is for “researchers taking part in short-duration research projects conducted in Canada.” Eligible workers qualified for the two exemptions can afford to stay in Canada within a specified period.

One significant change of the 2017 GSS is the Global Talent Stream, which offers Canadian employers’ quick access to highly-skilled global talent forces, with two distinct categories. The first stream applies to innovative Canadian firms, and the second one applies to employers seeking to hire workforces with suitable qualifications. The prime advantage of this approach is that the processing review is faster, and those applying for this program must commit to specific requirements, which ensure benefits for both employers and employees. In addition, by studying Canada’s strategy, Taiwan may make the process more concrete and resolve the difficulties of hiring research assistants and local researchers from the New Southbound countries.

Similar to Taiwan, Canada faces an ageing population that presents challenges to its healthcare system and workforce. The Canadian government has created many opportunities for international talents to migrate to Canada to resolve the problem. One notable example is Canada’s Manitoba province, where international students graduating from a Designated Learning Institution can apply for a post-graduation work permit and build their careers in the future. Thanks to its strategy, Canada could retain international students educated in Canada and benefit from migrant student workers’ gains. By leaning on the experience of Canada, Taiwan should facilitate highly qualified Vietnamese students with post-graduation work permits to encourage their working in Taiwan. The strategy employed by Vietnamese students can further have implications for NSP students studying and seeking jobs in Taiwan.

The Tsai’s government has produced practical measures to keep international students, like inventing the point system to make it easier for foreign graduates to get work visas in Taiwan, with modifications to evaluate international students’ performance and language proficiency. The Tsai administration’s efforts are promising and should deserve credits; however, much can be done to advance the ongoing process. The time is ripe for a fresh upgrade of Taiwan’s education policy to retain Vietnamese talents. This revived strategy—given its long-term orientation—could encourage potential Vietnamese students to choose Taiwan as their appealing study destination. The success of this strategy lies in joint efforts between the Tsai administration and Taiwan’s higher education institutions.

Huynh Tam Sang, a lecturer of the Faculty of International Relations and research fellow at the Centre for International Studies at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities, is a junior researcher at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation.

Tran Hoang Nhung is a research assistant at the Centre for International Studies at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

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