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More staff plan to stay put

Published on Friday, 19 Oct 2012

The Hong Kong economy is rightly famed for its flexibility and resilience, and these qualities will again be needed in the months ahead. With global trade still sluggish and persistent concerns about the possible impact of Europe’s debts, America’s “fiscal cliff” and China’s slowdown, local employees can’t expect a care-free ride heading into 2013.

This fact is apparent from the Classified Post’s Pay and Job Mobility Survey for Q3 2012, which looks at salary expectations and likely job-market activity in the next six months. The online feedback from 971 respondents is positive overall about hiring prospects and possible pay rises. Compared with results for the previous quarter, however, the general tone is somewhat less confident, tempered, no doubt, by rumoured cutbacks in some sectors and the realities of slower growth.

The survey found, for instance, that the percentage of respondents planning to change jobs in the next six months fell from 56.9 per cent in Q2 to 55.1 per cent in Q3. A small drop, perhaps, but significant at a time of year when employees traditionally start planning their next career move. More people are also resigned to a salary increase of only five per cent or less, with the figure rising from 46.4 per cent in Q2 to 47.7 per cent in Q3.

Evelyn Chan, deputy general manager in Hong Kong for recruitment firm Talent 2, confirms that employees are right to be cautious. She says that in general, companies are continuing to keep a tight rein on costs and headcounts. One trend this year has seen senior-level roles downgraded or restructured to cut costs. Another has been to push ahead with off-shoring or outsourcing mid- and back-office functions to other centres.

“Unless it is an urgent hire, employers are now inclined to wait until after the new year,” Chan says. “They expect to then have a bigger pool of candidates to select from.”

New jobs are still being created, of course. It is significant, though, that one of the strongest areas at present is in contracting and interim management, especially in the financial sector. There are roles for senior consultants, directors and staff who have the specific experience needed during a period of restructuring or re-engineering. Contracts can be on as little as a daily basis and, usually, the compensation packages are comparatively generous.

“Employers are beginning to see the added value of interim roles and candidates are increasingly receptive to short-term work,” Chan says. “We believe this trend will continue, at least until the job market stabilises. It allows for payroll flexibility.”

The current priority for many full-time staff seems to be to sit tight, hold on to a regular income, and hope for a discretionary year-end bonus.

“Job security and stability are the main concerns,” Chan says. “Candidates worry about being ‘last in, first out’, so are very selective at the moment [about going for new jobs].”
Matthew Bennett, managing director for Robert Walters in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand, looks first at the positives – how well in comparative terms the territory has fared since 2009 – but concedes, too, that the local job market is slowing. He expects hiring momentum to pick up again in March or April next year, assuming various stimulus measures have the anticipated knock-on effect.

“There are pockets of hiring in different industries, but on the whole, companies are turning a bit more cautious,” Bennett says. “They will have to start looking at headcount numbers for 2013 and will want to grow, but for now the market is reasonably flat.”

Bright spots can be found in finance-related areas such as risk management, compliance, relationship management and corporate governance. More broadly, employers are always on the lookout for sales and marketing professionals with proven track records. Demand is also steadily increasing for experts in online media and digital marketing, as organisations wake up to the potential this offers and invest accordingly.

“A lot of big [overseas-based] corporations are also still looking to move into Asia,” Bennett says. “It is seen as a region for growth, certainly with regards to what has happened this year. Companies still have a fair bit of money out there, which they need to invest wisely.”

Locally, this is creating opportunities in numerous fields – including legal, IT, finance and HR – for suitably qualified recruits at various levels. Internal transfers may be the employer’s first option, but relevant Asia experience is often the crucial factor.

Bennett expects that, in general, the next round of salary increases will be very much the same as this year. Employers will take the rate of inflation as a key benchmark and may pitch below that. In many cases, flat corporate earnings will not justify big bonuses.

“At the moment, I get the impression people are just happy to have a job,” he says.

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