Career Advice Featured stories and job trends

Changing fortunes

Classified Post survey shows employers need to act fast to keep hold of restless staff

In the past couple of years, recruitment professionals in Hong Kong have taken to describing themselves as no more than “cautiously optimistic” about the overall prospects for their sectors.

But it looks like it is time for the outlook to be moved up a notch or two. All indicators show that, with the economy well on track, companies are keen to expand, new jobs are being created, and the hiring process is getting faster.

Inevitably, some valid concerns still linger as various sectors grapple with the disparate effects of technological change, more intense competition, tighter regulation and shifting markets. In general, though, with the local unemployment rate steady at a 16-year low and a well-educated workforce ready to take on new challenges, there is little to complain about and plenty to cheer.

Evidence for this can be found in the Classified Post Pay and Job Mobility Survey for Q2 2014. Feedback from more than 6,700 respondents at different levels in all the main industries showed that 61.2 per cent of those surveyed are planning to change jobs in the next six months. That figure compares with the 55.6 per cent recorded for the first quarter of this year and the corresponding 56.3 per cent for the second quarter of 2013.

Such findings are only a measure of sentiment, not action taken. But they do point to rising optimism, along with the likelihood that many more individuals will either be searching for, or attracted to, new roles in the months ahead.

Meanwhile, the survey’s results on pay expectations confirm that realism is still the order of the day. A total of 34.4 per cent said they were expecting a salary increase of 6 to 10 per cent in the next fiscal year. Set against the 34.7 per cent who gave a similar answer in the first quarter and it is easy to detect a pretty clear understanding on both sides – employer and employee – of the underlying forces and practical limits in the current job market.

As a further point of reference, 50.3 per cent of respondents said they anticipate a next pay rise of no more than 5 per cent. In the first quarter, the comparative number was 49 per cent, suggesting that general wage inflation appears well under control.

Assessing these and other trends, Christopher Aukland, regional director of Michael Page, says in terms of successful placements, his firm is already between 20 to 25 per cent ahead of its tally this time last year. “There is certainly increased confidence in the market and definitely an element of improvement,” he says. “The challenge, though, is that there is huge demand for top-quality talent, but not enough high-calibre candidates to go around.”

In confronting this issue, employers must accept that the ground rules are changing. Until recently, job security was the main preoccupation for many employees, no matter their rank or experience. Now, though, staff attraction and retention factors that were previously in the background are moving to the forefront. These include the need for a clear career path, early advancement for younger recruits, flexible work arrangements, and tailor-made training and development.

“Employers looking for talent need to regard salary as just one part of the equation,” Aukland says. “A few years ago, no one would have mentioned things like work-life balance, but now that too is regarded as part of the compensation package. In this respect, things are changing, but not quickly. Much still depends on the organisation, the hiring manager, and how much the chief executive drives the message to management.”

He adds that increased demand for HR professionals and learning and development specialists is one sign that the message is getting through. It shows that companies are listening, reacting, investing in training, and doing more to create a challenging, yet congenial, work environment.

Mark Enticott, managing director of Ambition Hong Kong, agrees that greater investment in training is a positive development, but says there are too many cases where it completely misses the mark. Too often, staff are made to sit through standardised courses or scarcely relevant days of continuing professional development, simply to clock up the required hours or comply with a directive from some remote corporate office.

“Training needs to be closely related to the person’s job and responsibilities,” he says. “Leadership, management and technical courses can be very beneficial. Where employees get annoyed is when companies do not take the time to understand what training individuals want. This can come from quarterly reviews, so the company can then invest in training and development that will really enhance skills, help engagement and retention, and improve overall business performance.”

As operations direction for Hays in Asia, Christine Wright also sees both a marked increase in general hiring activity and a “disconnect” between what some companies say and do. One simple example is that employers increasingly expect key staff to be almost constantly on call, but then insist on rigid office hours and holiday entitlements.

Employers also talk about taking only the best candidates, but prolong the hiring process interminably, so those good candidates lose interest and go elsewhere. “Employers may want someone who has 100 per cent of the skills for a certain job, but that is not realistic,” she says. “They need to be flexible and realise candidates will want to move into new areas and learn as they go.”

For training, she adds, you can’t take everything off the shelf. The key is to identify gaps in competencies and soft skills, and plan tailor-made programmes to address them. “It is about engagement and collaboration, so everyone can perform and understands how their piece fits the whole,” she says.

Pallavi Anand, director of Robert Half Hong Kong, says that as the job market becomes more competitive, firms must demonstrate a commitment to work-life balance, while being more targeted and innovative with non-monetary incentives. “Across all sectors, career mobility and training and development opportunities play an important role in employee retention,” she says.