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Going steady

Published on Friday, 14 Feb 2014
With a low jobless rate and employers still taking a cautious approach, Hong Kong’s jobs market has reached a rare state of near equilibrium.
Photo: EPA
Matthew Bennett
Tony Pownall
Ian Strutton
Sommer Owens

Relationship between hirers and jobseekers hits a balance as both look forward to opportunities ahead

The arrival of the Year of the Horse offers astrologers and economists a tempting opportunity to predict all sorts of dramatic change for the 12 months ahead. In the case of the local employment market, however, they are best advised to scale back the superlatives and instead stick to the standard maritime refrain of "steady as you go".

With the local jobless rate at just above 3 per cent, and most employers still taking a cautious approach to hiring, there is a sense that things are as close as they can be to a natural point of equilibrium. Generally speaking, that is good news. It means jobseekers can find work, if not their dream job; companies are thinking harder about exactly who and what they need to achieve sustainable growth; and investment is being targeted more effectively towards skills training and staff development.

If those trends continue, there should be little reason for concern or complaint. The familiar battle lines will, of course, remain on issues such as pay, benefits, performance and retention. But, on the whole, a strengthening global economy, China's growing pre-eminence, new technologies and the force of individual ambition point to the creation of new opportunities and steady replacement hiring - and, therefore, reasonably buoyant prospects for the overall recruitment sector.

Confirming this broad outlook, the results of the latest Classified Post Pay and Job Mobility Survey show that 55.6 per cent respondents have some thought of changing jobs in the next six months. To put that in context, it is lower than the corresponding figure of 59.8 per cent for last year's final quarter, but not so different from the 56.5 per cent recorded in the first three months of 2013.

This time, the survey collected feedback from more than 3,100 respondents working at various levels in major industries in Hong Kong, with the aim of discerning the intentions of both active and passive jobseekers. In parallel, it found that expectations about pay are tempered by a large dose of realism. Setting aside the rhetoric of interviews and appraisals, 49 per cent of survey respondents indicated that they foresee pay rises of no more than 5 per cent at their next review, while 34.7 per cent believe a rise of between 6 and 10 per cent may be possible.

Showing marked consistency, these findings differ only marginally from those for last year's final quarter. The message seems clear: employees know where they stand, but remain on the lookout for something better with either a current employer or elsewhere.

In noting this, Matthew Bennett, managing director of Greater China for recruitment firm Robert Walters, also highlights certain areas likely to see extra hiring as business revs up again after the Lunar New Year break. In his view, tourist spending and improving export trade should create more positions in hospitality, luxury retail, marketing and sales. The comparative boom in civil construction projects, meanwhile, should benefit consultants, engineers and allied trades.

Despite the push for more outsourcing to overseas centres, the IT sector should also see consistent job growth. More infrastructure-related roles should be created, while demand for expertise in software architecture and areas like IAAS (information as a service) and SAAS (software as a service) should rise.

Overall, banking and finance is also set to revive slowly. The emphasis there, though, still tends to be on finding staff to specialise in compliance and risk management, rather than adding headcount in front-office advisory roles or back-office operations. In a recurring theme, individuals remain hesitant to move jobs without the promise of a relatively large salary rise.

"Another trend we have noticed is employers taking on specialists and then asking them to take on more general management responsibilities or to oversee training," Bennett says. "People are supposed to want bigger roles and managing others is seen as a good thing, but this doesn't always suit specialists, who may worry about losing their edge."

Tony Pownall, general manager of Hudson in Hong Kong, has already seen signs of a "slight uptick" in hiring intentions this year and believes that the prospect of better trade and GDP numbers will further boost recruitment in the second half of the year. He feels Hong Kong itself is very robust, thanks in large part to stable support from the mainland, and is positioned to move into faster expansion mode when the stars align.

"Right now, we should look for 'more of the same' until some of the fundamentals internationally are in better shape," Pownall says. "Our clients are still making sure they get the best possible talent. In fact, the list of what they expect has gotten longer, but finding candidates with the most experience doesn't necessarily mean you get better performers."

Sommer Owens, associate director of Morgan McKinley, also notes that, when recruiting, firms might be well advised to consider candidates who don't meet all the stated selection criteria. Instead, they should look for individuals motivated by the chance to grow into a role and develop new skills, specifically those involving a combination of business and tech-based competencies.

"We meet a large number of candidates who are ready to move, but feel there is a dearth of jobs which offer a genuine opportunity to expand their skills," Owens says. "Firms, though, are still anxious about making the wrong hiring decisions and often feel the number of applicants is too low to benchmark effectively."

According to Ian Strutton, director of Experis Hong Kong, the trend towards offshoring more straightforward technical, back-office and sales support roles is set to continue as employers remain under pressure to cut costs. This, though, will create opportunities for project managers with both technical and business backgrounds who are willing to travel.

Strutton believes that there should also be new openings in compliance, consumer goods, logistics, transportation, and devising digital strategies.

"If roles are 'mission critical', clients may have to change some requirements and increase their budget," he says. "In other cases, they may just widen the net or leave positions open for up to a year."

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