Although advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) more often make headlines for their potential as job killers, Taiwan is looking avidly at these burgeoning new technology industries as job creators and key to the continued success of its vast Information Technology (IT) sector.
IT products including semiconductors and electronic components account for around 35% of Taiwan’s total exports, and Taiwan is a major supplier to global IT supply chains. Taiwan forecasts thousands of new jobs in the AI and IoT industries.
But Taiwan recognizes that to compete successfully in these high-tech sectors, it needs not only to retain local talent in engineering and the sciences but attract outstanding foreign talent.
As a result, the government has recently amended a number of laws governing foreign talent in Taiwan and has initiated several policies that are aimed at making Taiwan a more attractive destination for foreign talent. For example, minimum salary requirements for foreigners working in Taiwan have been loosened, enabling many to work in currently under-capitalized startups that might have great future potential. Foreigners now have more flexibility in job hunting as well.
Will this be enough to enable Taiwan to attract the necessary talent?
A recent analysis of the market for AI-related job openings in Taiwan by online employment service 104 Job Bank revealed an estimated 6,000 “high salary” AI-related jobs listed on its job search platform, including data scientists, algorithm engineers, and robotics engineers.
According to news reports, data scientists in Taiwan on average are offered an annual salary of NT$1.22 million (US$41,650), while algorithm engineers are paid around NT$880,000 (US$30,186.6), and robotics engineers a bit less at NT$830,000 (US$28,471.46).
Anyone who knows Taiwan recognizes that NT$70,000 per month is very much a living wage, and that outside of Taipei it is fairly decent money. A monthly salary of NT$100,000 is doing well anywhere in Taiwan.
Translated into US dollar terms, however, these salaries barely rate as working class. A data scientist in the United States can earn US$141,807 (NT$4.13 million), for example, as seen on the Tech Pro Research website.
The comparative cost of living is of course the main reason for the discrepancy. As measured in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms, Taiwan ranks favorably with the United States. Taiwan’s nominal per capita GDP is only US$25,000, but in PPP terms rises to US$49,000, nearly the same as the U.S. level at US$51,000, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Which is why earning NT$1.2 million (US$40,000) per year here feels middle class – it is. Low cost of living is one of the many attractions that Taiwan has to offer foreigners.
Yet on the global marketplace US$40,000 is hardly much of a draw, particularly for talent looking to accumulate healthy savings. Low salaries are also implicated in Taiwan’s “brain drain” to China, the United States, and elsewhere.
Stephen Su, General Director of the Industrial Economics and Knowledge Center at Taiwan’s public-private Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), urges companies in Taiwan to adopt greater flexibility in salary structures, considering that different industries have different needs. He notes, however that government and industry are reluctant to raise salaries for foreign professionals far beyond those of local talent in light of concerns over inequality.
Jessie Wei, managing director of recruiting firm Bo Le Associates Group, Ltd., observes that Taiwanese companies that are too conservative in their approach to recruiting talent are unlikely to get the best.
“Firms in China always tell recruiters ‘the package is open for negotiation,’ because they know they need the top talent now,” she observes. “Taiwanese companies say ‘Try to find somebody senior, who has already retired and doesn’t mind taking a pay cut.’ They won’t get the top talent that way.”