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Alternative Workforce – Empowering NGOs and Unconventional Labour

Interview with YMCA of Hong Kong

Beset by a shrinking workforce in recent times, many industries in Hong Kong are struggling to recruit and retain sufficient talent, especially for labour-intensive industries such as hospitality and the food & beverage industry.


However, YMCA of Hong Kong (YMCA) has discovered a solution to its recruitment challenge from a most unlikely place. As an NGO with a rich history of over 120 years, YMCA has tapped into the previously underexplored potentials of the “alternative workforce” and created a sustainable cycle of talent recruitment and retention with various community partners.

Taking a hit


While recruitment problems are common to both profit-making and non-profit making sectors, Kin Mei Kwan, Senior Director of Corporate Services at YMCA of Hong Kong points out that these issues are even more hard-hitting for NGOs as they struggle to compete financially with the commercial world for talent. Kin Mei also observes that, as small and medium-sized organisations that are not subvented by the government, many NGOs can often only appeal to the potential candidates’ sense of mission, which further shrinks the talent pool from which NGOs can recruit. This is also true for YMCA, which operates The Salisbury, a 4-star hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, with a large number of frontline employees. Faced with the mammoth task of staffing the hotel, Kin Mei realises that YMCA must find innovative ways to hire new talent.


Finding a solution


When Kin Mei joined YMCA in late 2017, she was presented with the opportunity to partner with Hong Chi Association, another NGO which provides vocational training to those with mild intellectual disabilities, to hire their graduates and fill The Salisbury’s staff vacancies. By tapping into this alternative workforce, Kin Mei discovered a sustainable solution to its recruitment problem. In 2018, four Hong Chi graduates were hired as room attendants or dishwashers. A few years down, YMCA is now hiring 13 Hong Chi graduates as hotel staff with a close to zero turnover rate. The success of this partnership opens up the possibility of YMCA establishing similar partnerships with more NGOs. Besides Hong Chi, YMCA is now hiring several beneficiaries from other partnering NGOs including Christian Action’s Centre for Refugees and Mother’s Choice. It has also hired, by open recruitment, one person with hearing impairment.

What makes success?


These achievements did not come overnight. Kin Mei explains that thoughtful preparations went into the partnership with Hong Chi.


“Considerations were given to carefully introducing Hong Chi graduates to the hotel’s operation managers, to let them know the graduates’ capabilities and assurance of ongoing support from Hong Chi.”


YMCA organised a tour for potential Hong Chi graduates, featuring onsite skill demonstration by the graduates and job briefing by the hotel staff, to ensure that both the prospective employer and potential employees could make well-informed decisions.


Moreover, the targets during the probation period for these new hires were flexibility adjusted according to their respective capabilities.


YMCA has replicated this successful model in its collaboration with other NGOs.


“To attract job-seekers, we arranged tours for our NGO partners and potential candidates as identified by the NGOs. The tours included job briefing by operation managers to showcase our caring culture, and concluded with a lunch at our staff canteen and a visit to our cosy staff’s resting area.” Kin Mei said.


For organisations interested in recruiting from the alternative workforce, Kin Mei offers some tips: it is important to align the recruitment strategy with the overall organisational mission, values and direction, and if partnerships with other NGOs are needed for hiring, it is important to provide them with suitable support throughout the staff’s onboarding or even after.


Kin Mei also gives other practical advice, such as starting small, gauging staff acceptance and ensuring communication among all stakeholders.

A win-win situation


This unconventional hiring approach creates opportunities to both YMCA and its partnering NGOs that go beyond filling job vacancies.


Such collaboration allows the beneficiaries of these NGOs to support themselves and utilise their talent. At the same time, introducing new talents from different backgrounds helps give a breath of fresh air to the “diversity and inclusion” culture of a well-established organisation such as YMCA with a large number of long-serving staff.


Looking ahead


Practical benefits aside, tapping into the alternative workforce is ultimately a manifestation of an organisation’s values and social responsibility.


As Kin Mei concludes, “We will continue to explore partnership with NGOs, with a view to caring for the underprivileged by creating impact to their lives, and giving a second chance to those who need them.”


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