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Latest recruitment survey offers little spring cheer

Published on Friday, 20 Apr 2012

Despite widespread optimism about the apparent strength of Hong Kong's job market, findings from Manpower's latest employment outlook survey offer a salutary reminder.

They show that, moving into the traditional hiring season - post-Lunar New Year and after annual bonuses have been paid - local businesses may not be planning for a major round of recruitment or big increases in their overall headcount.

The quarterly report sought views on hiring intentions for the April to June period from 810 Hong Kong employers across the main sectors of the local economy. For participants, the key question was how total employment at their firms was likely to change in the next three months. And given increasingly upbeat talk elsewhere, analysis of the feedback received offered quite a surprise.

"The results indicate the lowest level of employer confidence since the fourth quarter of 2009," says Lancy Chui, managing director of ManpowerGroup Hong Kong, Macau and Vietnam. "Business is still increasing and there will be job opportunities, but many companies are adopting a wait-and-see attitude to recruitment," she adds.

This is evident from the fact that only 11 per cent of Hong Kong respondents said they expect to increase staffing levels in the second quarter. This compares with 18 per cent in this year's first quarter and 21 per cent for the second quarter of last year. And emphasising that stability and consolidation are the priorities right now, 82 per cent of replies to the latest survey expected "no change" in headcount before mid-year.

"This indicates that employers intend to monitor global markets and are still [wary of] things like the European debt crisis and growth prospects in the United States," Chui says. "Don't forget, though, that Hong Kong businesses can react very fast, and a positive change in financial markets or the external trading environment can quickly have a massive impact on potential hiring."

Looking at specific industries, Chui notes that the local construction sector currently stands out as the most buoyant. New government-backed infrastructure projects are providing a big boost, with many openings for engineers and other skilled workers. Indeed, the possibility of a mismatch between demand and supply for suitably qualified staff now looms.

A contrasting mismatch already exists in banking and finance. Plenty of people still want to break into the sector - or re-establish themselves in it after the downturn - but the chance of major hiring campaigns appears slim to non-existent.

"Jobs in the finance sector are very limited," Chui says. "There is still demand for candidates in commercial banking, personal loans, compliance, Web-related and revenue-generating roles. But financial institutions are still inclined to freeze overall headcount, and there may even be another round of layoffs." 

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