Saturday, March 11, 2006

Youth poverty, unemployment and development of district economy

Today I joined a panel discussion on poverty, the development district economy and the problem of youth unemployment, organized by the offices of legislators Ronny Tong and Lee Cheuk Yan, in the Pok Oi Hospital Tang Pui King Memorial College in Yuen Long.

The forum is the followup to a study on poverty, discrimination and social exclusion, with a focus on young people in the more remote districts of Hong Kong. The study was conducted by the office of Ronny Tong, Prof WONG Hung and Prof LI Ping Wai.

Not being an expert on the issue of poverty but being introduced as an "expert" in IT, I started to address the topic from the angle of digital divide. In recent years, much has been done in our community to shorten the digital divide in various sectors of needs. Indeed, today young people are no longer viewed as a disadvantaged sector as far as digital readiness is concerned. Hardware is certainly not the main issue, as computer literary is relatively high and accessibility in school is good. However, those who are not in school may not be so lucky, and PC ownership in poorer families remains low, and many families find it hard to afford the recurrent telecom charges of the Internet.

Nonetheless, the issue young people face is no longer about access to hardware, but how best to use technology to their benefits -- not about playing online games in cybercafes, but learning IT to improve their skills in getting jobs, for instance. We heard from a young man who said that these days even a messenger's job would require typing ability, which he doesn't have. Indeed, many may "use" the PC today but don't even know how to type!

A recurrent request made by young people is about training -- being too expensive for them to afford and no assistance is readily available from the government to help them improve themselves. So what else is new. While our government's education bureau and our honored teachers keep on bickering about workloads and wellbeings of the teachers' own jobs, how many are really paying attention to the needy?

It is not that our government is not spending money on training. But look at the joke of what is called the Continuing Education Fund -- a grand HK$10,000 lifetime subsidy, and a pre-screened list that makes more for administrative ease than for convenience to the students. Look at the Employee Retraining Board -- that limits itseld by giving "priority" to those over 30 years old, and with often training that makes little market sense. Worst, look at the Vocational Training Council -- expensive infrastructure with ineffective management that has to advertise on TV to get students.

So, the first thing that the government must do is to genuinely reaffirm its commitment to education, and revamp its education and training strategy. But, asking for such "bold moves" may be too much for our government bureaucrats?

There has been a lot of discussion on creative industry in recent years, but nothing has really happened. There were also some discussions on district economy a few years ago, but not much more than setting up temporary flea markets has been done. We need to drive the community to consider the future developments of creative industry and district economy together. Indeed the two can bring up so much synergetic energy.

The problem of poverty in the remote districts in Hong Kong did not happen because of distance. It happened because of poor government planning over the years, which is continuing even now. New town planning was just about building public housing and at most the supporting service infrastructure for their living. But there was no coordination about attracting the development of commerce and industry in these new towns. So, as residents go out to the city center to work, there is always a deficit in the amount of local economy, causing a spiraling effect driving more and more into relative poverty.

It is just beginning now that more local district leaders are advocating the development of more skilled labor capabilities and positions, rather than competing for the low-end service jobs. But government coordination must lead such developments into these areas. Let me take one example: as the government is pushing the development of digital entertainment in Hong Kong, and it intends to put the development center at Cyberport, at the southern side of Hong Kong Island, isn't it possible to try to put a few satellite testing or development centers in the New Territories, so that young people spending money playing games may find themselves exposed to a possible career in developing games? Sure, it won't be easy as local talents may not be around to begin with, but with political will, it is not impossible.

In recent years, a few concerned individuals in the IT sector have developed programs with schools in the more impoverished districts in Hong Kong for their students to visit IT related establishment in Kowloon and Hong Kong, including Cyberport, Microsoft, Cathay Pacific, etc. I truly believe that there are many people in IT -- professionals as well as companies -- willing to spend some time to help young people, let them see the world of opportunities and possibilities in front of them, open their eyes to a better future. I hope that organizations like the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation and Internet Society Hong Kong Chapter can devote more attention to these activities, to help people and to help ourselves -- so that our industry will continue to have the healthy supply of talents and market that we need.


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