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Caching in on shortages

Software experts are capitalising on industry’s chronic lack of skills

Hong Kong's technology sector can expect its jobs market to experience steady, if cautious, growth in 2014, benefiting from a general sense of optimism among clients across the commercial spectrum.

"In general, the market is good, but I wouldn't say it's fantastic," says Francis Fong, honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation. "There are a couple of sectors which have continued to boom - software development for applications and enterprise software, for example - thanks in part to the growth of mobile devices such as cellular phones and tablets. This is a sector in which we have seen some very keen action on the recruitment side."

Fong adds that business is particularly strong in the areas of mobile applications for marketing purposes. This involves free apps that promote businesses or products to consumers, and which cost anywhere between HK$50,000 to HK$500,000 to develop. Even though this business is strong, however, it has still tapered from previous years.

"The applications market last year wasn't as good as it was in 2012. There was a bit of a flattening in terms of demand, because companies pulled back somewhat on their marketing spend in light of global economic uncertainty," Fong says.

Still, he adds, the job market has remained active because of the chronic shortage of talent in software development. Even recent graduates with only two years of experience can expect monthly salaries of up to HK$30,000.

Local software companies are also willing to fork out decent pay rises of at least 10 per cent for software development professionals to encourage them to stay in their jobs. This compares favourably to the rest of the technology sector, which averages between 3 and 8 per cent, Fong says.

Elsewhere, IT security and outsourcing are also in steady demand. And while Hong Kong has never been a hub for hardware development, Fong says there is a chance a healthy and vibrant scene could emerge in the medium term - especially in light of comments by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying that the government has revived stalled efforts to develop an innovation and technology bureau.

"If there's one thing we've learned from the bursting of the dotcom bubble in the early 2000s, it's that Hong Kong needs a more balanced technology sector with a mixture of hardware and software development," Fong says. "That's something that can only happen if we have a dedicated technology bureau to formulate long-term policy and provide the sort of infrastructure that both big companies and start-ups need to support growth."

Looking ahead, Fong expects recruitment in Hong Kong's technology sector to remain in a state of steady, if subdued, growth. The biggest worry is the state of the global economy, since IT jobs are typically among the first to go when companies retrench, he adds.

Bonnie Chan, IT manager at Robert Walters Hong Kong, says the technology sector in general is suffering a talent shortage. The most active part of the job market is the IT servicing industry, which consists of firms offering outsourced services to businesses - many of whom expect a bumper revenue year in 2014 and want to ensure they have the necessary personnel to support growth.

"Normally, the market is more active in March, but this year we received new job openings from clients even before the Christmas holidays," Chan says. "Some clients tell us that these are openings for their 2014 budget, but they've been approved ahead of time in order to get ahead of the market."

The hottest jobs include roles in pre-sales and as technical-solution architects, as technology firms remain on the lookout for those with a technical background who are able to assist frontline sales staff in closing deals. Pre-sales professionals, especially those with prior experience in cloud computing or data centres, and with at least five years of experience, are in high demand, Chan says. Those with more than 10 years of experience in infrastructure services, and at least two years in cloud computing, can also expect to command a healthy premium on the job market.

"We are reasonably positive for 2014, as we have seen recruitment has started earlier, and the pace of activity has been quicker than last year," Chan says. She adds that while last year the recruitment process took, on average, up to three months, this year hiring managers seem able to reach a decision quicker - typically after three rounds of interviews for mid-level roles, and five for senior hires.

There is also steady demand in software development - both among application developers and retail companies looking for candidates with experience in point-of-sales support or development. Other companies are seeking to internalise at least part of their IT functions, and are seeking candidates with both English and Putonghua skills to service offices in China and the rest of Asia.

On compensation, Chan says that while some firms are willing to pay premiums of as much as 20 per cent over candidates' current salary - especially for more junior hires - only those with niche technical skills are likely to get more. But it is not unusual for bosses to use one-off sign-on bonuses - typically a minimum of one month's salary, paid after six months provided the candidate stays in the role for at least a year - to sweeten a deal.

Similarly, while job-market sentiment in Hong Kong's engineering sector has remained strong since the fourth quarter of last year, many industry players have stepped up their recruitment efforts, according to Marc Burrage, regional director of recruitment firm Hays in Hong Kong.

While there haven't been any significant structural changes to the local engineering job market, companies are responding to stronger economic sentiment by boosting hiring, Burrage says. Employers have a tough choice whether to fill their talent gaps by either looking for local candidates outside the traditional talent pool, training existing personnel, or hiring professionals from overseas.

"What we are seeing now is people coming out on the other side of that and there's been a renewed sense of cautious optimism verging on confidence. Where some organisations had their finger on the pause button of projects, now we are seeing them reactivated and people pushing the go button," he says.

Pay-wise, Burrage notes that salary rates have increased slightly in the construction-engineering sector. For example, experienced civil-engineering professionals can expect their next pay rise to be between 10 and 12 per cent, while building-construction engineers may get as much as 10 per cent.