譚國翹 Edwin Tam
Since the early 2010s, Hong Kong has been facing the shortage of high-calibre Information and Communications Technology (ICT) staff, for most contemporary ICT skills. In InfoTech, we have found that the pay-level of technical support staff are particularly high comparing with that of the Chinese Mainland. Pay for technical support staff here is by and large at par if not higher than that of the application developer, given similar level of work experience. Technical support staff refers to in-house, customer or sales support ICT staff, no matter hired under permanent or secondment terms, for all levels of seniorities, from support management, administrators, engineers to operators. Technologies covers Windows, UNIX Servers, Cisco data/voice internetworks, storage networks, cloud, mobile to telecoms, etc.
From economic perspective, pay-level is always determined by the demand and supply of technical support professionals in the job market, the Hong Kong market for this case. As far as demand is concerned, ICT technologies support in general, operating systems, application servers, software versions, hardware boxes and networks have been changing dramatically but rapidly. In typical commercial environment, the change is now getting very fast, the traditional wired system and network configurations are now closely integrated with wireless, smartphones, tablets, clouds, etc. Small to medium sized configuration is now complex enough to require more full-time technical support staff to ensure system availability and stability, before kicking off serious application development projects. The less touching approach of outsourcing technical support from third-party only shift the demand for technical support from end-users to systems integrators, it has not reduced the total demand at all, at least from the overall job market point of view.
Technical support vacancies have rarely and will hardly be relocated away from the Hong Kong. We did come across the relocation of development teams and centres to the Philippines, India, Singapore, Malaysia, etc. during the waves of emigration of Hong Kong’s ICT professionals; since then we have been experiencing some sorts of relocation or outsourcing of application development projects from Shenzhen, Pearl River Delta and other parts of the Chinese Mainland. We have never heard of first-level technical support be completely handled by off-shore team, though call-centre can easily be set up away from Hong Kong. Hong Kong has rarely been the second-level technical support centre of any serious ICT vendor-level, it has always been handled by the country-of-origin of the relevant vendors, very often is the US. End-users must always have someone to do the physical system and network set-up, cabling, configuration on-site before escalating the unresolved problems to the second-level support team that may be thousands of miles away. Users tend to prefer and management is used to having someone to resolve the ICT problems upfront at desk side, almost right after such problem cannot be resolved by helpdesk call or remote desktop trouble-shooting.
The establishment of regional data centres for cloud computing in Hong Kong further exacerbates the shortage and has surged the pay-level to a higher level, particularly for the operations support staff requiring shift duty.
In the supply side, graduates from Computer Science, Computer Engineering, IT, Networks, Electronic Engineering are significant sources of supply for technical support professionals. As a matter of fact, these graduates bear equal opportunities to engage in application development and non-technical support ICT careers as well. Graduates from Information Systems, Business Information Systems, Management Information Systems, Information Engineering are always perceived as less trained or prepared for technical support career, or simply say in better shape for application development or analyst career path. Some of us regard Hong Kong need more business than engineering related graduates, this is probably thoughts and preferences of students and parents alike when choosing academic focus.
Mobility of labour across geographic regions occurs in open market, when technical support professions are getting better pay, more people gear academic specialisation or training toward the technical support career. This is the current scenario in the Chinese mainland job market like Shanghai or Shenzhen where InfoTech witnesses workforce mobility from surrounding cities and provinces to metropolitans. The move narrows down pay disparity across positions and the whole nation. It has not happened in Hong Kong where there are restrictions in the admission and influx of mainland professionals to smoothen the shortage. The catching up of the supply of Computer Science and ICT graduates if there is any can hardly meet the demand in a short term. ‘Invisible hand’ again pay premium in favour of talents, this time technical support staff.