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Hot prospects, cold feet

Published on Friday, 26 Jul 2013
While intentions to change jobs are at their highest level for over a year, many employers are retaining existing headcounts and focusing on upgrading staff skills
Matthew Bennett
Corrina Donaldson
Tony Pownall
Ian Strutton

Despite rising activity, the job market is still sluggish as recruiters and applicants remain cautious

Many employers and candidates in Hong Kong currently resemble that familiar figure perched at the end of the high board at the local pool, the one who goes so far, but can't quite pluck up the courage to take the plunge.

The analogy applies because, while there is plenty of "activity" at present in local recruitment - feelers being put out, jobs advertised, interviews conducted and offers made - the number of professionals actually taking the leap and moving to new jobs shows few signs of following a sharp upward trajectory.

Companies are, of course, hiring steadily and, as ever, jobseekers are on the lookout for roles which promise better financial returns or more exciting career challenges. But anyone who expected a strengthening economy to signal an increase in overall headcounts and escalating pay has had to readjust their thinking.

Right now, the focus for most companies is on replacement hiring and "up-skilling" rather than expansion, and the mood in the job market is widely deemed as cautious. In general, the interview process is taking longer, as risk-averse managers go through more rounds in search of people who fully fit their profile.

Candidates, meanwhile, are finding that a new job, when offered, may not in fact equate to a significant improvement in salary or prospects, so they are prepared to bide their time and count their blessings until something obviously better comes around.

Those sentiments are reflected in the latest Classified Post Pay and Job Mobility Survey. It sought feedback from more than 5,000 people with a wide range of ranks and responsibilities in Hong Kong's main industries, and the findings show that clear-eyed pragmatism prevails.

For instance, 50.1 per cent of respondents said they currently expect a salary increment of no more than 5 per cent whether changing jobs or staying put in the next fiscal year. Expectations have been tempered since the previous three-month period, when 48.7 per cent felt that 5 per cent was the likely upper limit for pay increases.

This time, a further 34.7 per cent have their sights set on a pay increase of between 6 and 10 per cent. In certain areas like risk and compliance, IT project management and high-end retail, that is not out of the question for individuals with relevant experience and the right combination of hard and soft skills. However, employers offering such increases are the exception, not the rule.

Somewhat surprisingly, 59.3 per cent of survey respondents indicated they would be looking to change jobs in the next six months, up noticeably from the 56.3 per cent reporting such intentions in the prior quarter. It should be emphasised, though, that the hard-edged realities of actually finding a new job can soon erode that initial level of optimism.

"From what we see, the overall Hong Kong job market has been reasonably flat for two years now - neither good, nor bad," says Tony Pownall, general manager of Hudson in Hong Kong. "A high percentage of companies are holding steady and are looking to retain existing headcount and upgrade staff. This 'wait and see' approach is likely to continue as long as there are no signs of a big lift in global trade."

For employers, the focus is on replacement hiring and bringing in new skill sets to change the way they operate. This is all part of the drive to create efficiencies, doing more with less, and enhancing the capacity to offer new products or better services at little extra cost.

There are, though, obvious implications. Managers under budget constraints have to avoid "mistakes" in hiring and, therefore, are making the recruitment process ever more arduous. Potential candidates, while keen to move on and up, may well detect during the series of interviews that the promise of a new opportunity with another company is not so enticing when broken down to the constituent parts and compared with their current situation.

"Companies can't afford to get hiring wrong, so they are more cautious," Pownall says.

"They want people who are better than they already have, but they need help to articulate what 'better' is. Also, if they can't just 'buy' talent, employers have to be cleverer about the value proposition they offer. That is catching out some organisations where the approach to hiring has previously been salary- and money-driven and not really focused on what else candidates want."

Matthew Bennett, Greater China managing director for Robert Walters, similarly foresees no great change in job-market trends over the coming months which, from a recruitment firm's viewpoint, can make things "difficult and frustrating". The pervasive sense of hesitancy means employer or candidate can get cold feet about a move after five or six interviews, and then it is all back to square one.

"If China tightens lending, then businesses won't be expanding and hiring will be put on hold, which will have an impact on Hong Kong," Bennett says. "And while some companies here may have had a strong second quarter, I don't see any grounds for salary increases. Businesses don't want to cope with those extra costs."

Looking ahead, Ian Strutton, director of Experis Hong Kong, sees good reason for optimism, though, in the plans of major Chinese enterprises to build global brands and, in doing so, make substantial overseas investments. In parallel with the continuing push of international companies into the mainland market, this should allow Hong Kong to capitalise on its role as a hub for talent.

"Candidates may have concerns about moving base, but these are supplanted by the sheer size of the opportunities in major Chinese conglomerates," Strutton says. "Whether these companies are in aviation, automobiles, real estate or property development, they are diversifying into acquisitions overseas and they will need experts and change agents to make this happen."

Two of Strutton's colleagues - Paul Hotchan, who specialises in the hospitality, tourism and leisure sector, and Corrina Donaldson, whose expertise is in sales and marketing - also see new roles being created. They expect these to be in areas such as theme parks, hotels and cruises, e-commerce, brand-building, and customer relationship management.

"For example, employers are looking for candidates with a technology background who want to expand into online marketing," Donaldson explains.

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