Career Advice Job Market Trend Report

Gearing up

Hiring momentum gaining for IT and operations roles as financial institutions look to build new revenue streams

Often considered as the engines that drive banking and finance, operations and IT processes enable financial institutions to function effectively and efficiently. In an era of changing customer demands, an evolving regulatory landscape and a recovering global economy, operations and IT are areas where banks and financial enterprises are looking to control costs while strengthening their business models.

While many Hong Kong financial institutions scaled back their operations departments or moved them offshore in the wake of the global financial crisis to reduce costs, demand for mid- and senior-level operations professionals in Hong Kong is slowly gaining momentum.

Mark Enticott, Hong Kong managing director of talent recruitment firm Ambition, says operations in non-revenue-generating departments such as transaction banking, sales, trading, and asset and wealth management play a vital role in helping to streamline the processes used by front offices.

He adds that signs of a recovering global economy could trigger a pick-up in front-end banking activities, which is likely to put pressure on mid- and back office operations. “The back-end operations at most banks have been kept fairly lean as organisations have been looking for ways to cut costs,” he says.

Because of cost-cutting, operations professionals have, in some cases, been given the responsibility for more than one job role, Enticott continues. Banks that have been operating with tight capacity will need to make sure that they have the talent resources and infrastructure in place to cope with an increased workload. Long working hours and heavy workloads could prove tipping points that prompt back-office talent to seek new employers in today’s more favourable hiring environment.

Guy Day, Ambition’s global CEO, says that as financial institutions seek to build new revenue streams, Hong Kong is mirroring the international hiring trend for product-management and marketing roles. Similarly, there is a demand for IT professionals within the financial services sector as organisations seek efficiencies and cost savings through automation.

At DBS Bank, building a pipeline of future leaders who are familiar with operations and IT functions is an integral part of its management-training programme. Anna Yeung, senior vice-president of the talent acquisition group and HR communication for Hong Kong and China at DBS, says the three rotations included in the DBS Management Associate Programme (MAP) provide management associates (MAs) with a valuable opportunity to discover how the bank operates.

A key part of the 24-month programme allows MAs to gain experience with business units spread over front-end, middle and back-office areas. “Rotations across different business units allow MAs to gain broad-based exposure across the bank,” Yeung says.

 Suk-wah Kwok, Asia-Pacific chief information officer at insurance broker Lockton Companies (Hong Kong), one of the world’s largest privately owned insurance brokers, says IT is playing an increasingly important role in improving business agility and competitiveness both internally and externally. For example, she says, investment in technology at Lockton includes flexible and scalable IT infrastructure, technological platforms and business applications that enable institutional clients to conduct business with the firm quicker and more effectively.

“Internally, brokers and producers of the business rely heavily on technology to improve their productivity and their ability to serve their clients,” Kwok says. She adds that as a general trend, the role that IT plays in the insurance industry can vary widely depending on the level of management support and the way that technology is viewed within a company.

While the quality of the technology is important, quick business decisions on the adoption of technology are paramount, Kwok says. She also points out that in Asia, IT professionals must be customer-focused, innovative and adaptable. This is because unlike the US, where technology applications are usually produced in one language, insurance business applications in Asia need to cater for multiple languages and currencies.

Matthew Caddick, managing director at executive search firm Aptitude, says that even though financial institutions are investing in risk and compliance technologies, they are taking a selective and cautious approach to hiring. “There is a general trend towards achieving more with less,” he says.

He adds that while a lot of IT attention is being directed towards compliance, far less is being paid to product development, where IT people enjoy being challenged. Meanwhile, when hiring decisions are being made by international organisations based in Hong Kong, the onboarding process is often drawn out due to the final decisions being made in London or New York. “This can be frustrating for both the candidate and the employer,” he says.

In May this year, the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) Institute introduced its Claritas Investment Certificate (CIC) programme designed to equip back-office professionals with an understanding of the complexities and demands faced in today’s investment-management industry.

Paul Smith, Asia-Pacific managing director at the institute, says that the Claritas curriculum is a foundation-level programme that focuses on the role and responsibilities of a financial-services professional. Involving about 100 hours of self-study, the Claritas curriculum covers a range of topics including investment instruments, macro and micro economics, industry controls, and ethics and regulations.

“The programme has been designed to give students with or without a tertiary education a core grounding in the financial services,” Smith says. He adds that the CFA Institute is working with employers in the finance industry to position the CIC programme as a job-ready entry qualification.

Chris Aukland, regional director of Michael Page Hong Kong, says pressure to manage back-office headcount has led to an increase in contract hiring, particularly in the IT and operations functions of financial institutions.

While contract hiring in Hong Kong lags behind that in Australia, the US and the UK, employers and employees are increasingly admitting that contract assignments offer a solution when constraints are in place that prevent hiring for permanent positions, he adds.

Marc Burrage, regional director of Hays in Hong Kong, has noticed a similar thing. “In general, across Hong Kong’s accountancy and finance markets, we are seeing more need for temporary candidates as both employers and candidates realise the benefits of working on a more flexible basis,” he says.