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Asia beckons

Published on Friday, 25 Oct 2013
Christopher Aukland
Mark Enticott
Photo: Edward Wong
Sommer Owens
Matthew Bennett
Jeremy Andrulis
Photo: Jonathan Wong

Economic growth is opening doors overseas

When people in many other parts of the world hear about the job market in Hong Kong, they can hardly believe their ears – an unemployment rate of 3.3 per cent, well-paying new roles being created by start-up businesses, multinationals setting up regional offices, and expected salary hikes of up to 4.7 per cent next year.

For anyone still wrestling day-to-day with the aftermath of the financial crisis, it sounds like the stuff of dreams. But one thing Hongkongers have learned over the past few years is to temper their optimism and look nervously around every corner.

Companies may be turning a handsome profit, but they are still determined to keep a tight lid on costs. Tourists flock to Hong Kong in their millions, but local retailers and hoteliers complain that visitors are not spending enough. Meanwhile, many employees still find ways to worry about whether they will get a better pay rise by staying put or taking up one of their options to move on.

That abiding sense of caution, despite the bright signs in the broader economy, comes through in the findings of the Classified Post Pay and Job Mobility Survey for Q4 2013. Based on feedback during the third quarter from more than 6,000 participants representing various levels across all the main industries, it shows that people are keeping their feet firmly on the ground.

That is clear from the small changes in sentiment and intent since the completion of the previous survey. For example, 50.2 per cent of respondents said they expect a pay increase of 5 per cent or less in the next fiscal year, compared with the 50.1 per cent who gave that answer in the prior quarter. The 34.7 per cent with hopes this time of a pay increase of between 6 and 10 per cent also mirrors the Q3 2013 figure.

When it comes to plans to change jobs in the next six months, 59.8 per cent of respondents said “yes”, up marginally from 59.3 per cent in the last survey. It is worth noting, though, that those intentions can be easily swayed in the coming months by current employers confirming a promotion, bonus or “satisfactory” pay rise.

Looking beyond the basic numbers, Christopher Aukland, regional director of Michael Page and Page Personnel in Hong Kong, notes that hiring activity in the final quarter may be comparatively quiet – as it typically is – but that should not detract from a generally strong outlook for jobs.

“Hong Kong’s professional employment market has remained reasonably robust during 2013 for the majority of industry sectors and we expect this to continue for the foreseeable future,” Aukland says. “The economy should continue to create positive business conditions and a constant flow of job opportunities, with most organisations [likely to see] growth in Greater China and Asia.”

Besides creating jobs locally, such developments will open the door to mainland and overseas moves as multinational companies (MNCs) expand their operations from their Hong Kong hubs.

“Large Chinese companies need talent with international experience, and MNCs expanding in locations such as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines will influence decisions to work in another country,” Aukland says. “Professionals will have to look around the region to gain the required exposure, but there are good opportunities for those willing to move.”

Mark Enticott, managing director in Hong Kong for recruitment firm Ambition, notes that while large companies are still very cost-conscious, many growth strategies are still focused on Asia. To be on the safe side – and limit permanent headcount – employers have increasingly turned to contractors and project staff, particularly in areas such as IT and back-office operations. This trend looks set to continue.

“It is hard to find proven performers and quality talent with all the competencies from the technical and interpersonal points of view,” Enticott says. “That’s not going to change, whether you are talking about roles in sales, business development, banking, commerce, or risk and compliance.”

He notes, too, that any job move, regardless of level and responsibilities, involves both push and pull factors. Therefore, in a steadily more competitive market, employers should focus on both talent attraction and retention.

For Sommer Owens, associate director of Morgan McKinley, the general signs point to firms across most industries adding new headcount from early next year, rather than just appointing replacement hires.

“This will represent a substantial shift in the supply-demand dynamic in Hong Kong,” Owens says. “As headcount restrictions are eased, we are likely to see a large number of professionals going from passive to active job search.”

Broadly speaking, she adds, new openings can be expected in PR, advertising and e-commerce, as funding becomes available and companies try to find an edge. Demand for web developers and designers should remain strong, while roles in digital marketing are starting to overtake those requiring “traditional” marketing skills. Insurers are also expected to add positions, with trilingual candidates having a clear advantage.

“On the banking side, though, the number of operations roles in Hong Kong continues to shrink,” Owens says. “Headcount is still being relocated to lower-cost places.”

Matthew Bennett, managing director for Greater China at recruitment firm Robert Walters, notes the slight softening in Hong Kong’s GDP in this year’s second half. He is encouraged, however, by the fact that demand in the supply chain and sourcing sectors is “hot”, a result in part of MNCs strengthening their local and regional teams.

He says there are further upbeat indications as more global retailers prepare to use Hong Kong as a launch pad for China, and, in education and learning, both companies and schools look to boost manpower for teaching and training.

“On the HR side, there has been sudden demand for talent-management- and training-related roles from large local conglomerates,” Bennett says. “We have also seen increased activity in the transactional-banking space, and private banks are always looking for good candidates who can bring a strong ‘book’ with them.”

On pay and benefits, Jeremy Andrulis, Aon Hewitt’s managing director for Hong Kong, stresses the need for employers to take more account of work-life balance and other rewards when offering employment. Money always counts, but companies can improve retention, or “stickiness”, by giving more consideration to things such as flexible work hours, leave options, performance-linked bonuses, and health and wellness schemes.

“Employers need to look at their whole value proposition,” Andrulis says. “It has to go beyond just cash and allow for options to allocate the overall spend in different ways.”

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