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High premium

Booming insurance sector is driving an industry-wide demand for talent

In a mature market such as Hong Kong, many industries find it difficult to achieve and sustain high growth. However, thanks to the ageing population and a strong local appetite to invest, there is one industry that seems to be having few problems pulling in business – insurance.

According to industry practitioners, Hong Kong’s insurance sector is predicted to remain in high growth mode over the next few years. This growth is expected to drive demand for insurance professionals across the board, ranging from technical experts such as actuaries, underwriters and accountants, to middle- and front-office specialists in customer relations, sales and marketing.

“The ageing population is a strong driver of the industry’s growth because many related products are in demand, including pensions, medical insurance and critical illness insurance,” says Billy Wong, president of the Actuarial Society of Hong Kong. He adds that demand from the mainland for investment-linked and international medical insurance coverage has also been a factor of growth.

In the first three quarters of 2013, total gross premiums for the Hong Kong insurance industry increased 14 per cent year-on-year to HK$216.8 billion, according to the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance. The figure represents another significant year of growth since 2009, when total gross premiums dropped 2.1 per cent. The following three years saw consecutive double-digit growth, increasing 11 per cent, 14 per cent and 12.7 per cent respectively.

Given the industry’s rapid expansion and positive outlook, “there are a lot of opportunities across the board,” says Robert Knight, Asia-Pacific insurance sector head at recruiters Heidrick & Struggles.

Kam To, chief HR officer at Manulife (International), says Manulife has, on average, 300 to 400 openings every year, including vacancies available due to turnover. Next year, five to 10 per cent of vacancies will be new roles driven by business growth.

“One area definitely in need of talents is compliance, risks and governance,” To says. He adds that this is because insurance companies are devoting more resources to meet new industry regulations that are being introduced to protect customers. “There are no specific requirements for compliance [positions]. Some candidates have experience in operations, while others have legal backgrounds.”

Roy Halliday, Hong Kong chief executive at Standard Life, observes the same trend. “Seven years ago, my finance director was also my compliance officer. Now, I have eight people in my compliance team. We have five risk specialists and three lawyers who are from all sorts of backgrounds. Some of them are from Big Four accounting firms – audit is a good background for risk and compliance,” he says.

For professional roles in accounting and finance, To says that relevant qualifications and exams passes are needed. For underwriting, while there are no specific degree requirements, openings for fresh graduates are rare.

For actuaries, professional exams are offered separately by actuarial bodies in the US, the UK and Australia. Both the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University also operate degree programmes in actuarial science. Wong says that the US qualification offered by the Society of Actuaries is traditionally more popular among Hong Kong students.

“It is not a must for a person to have such a degree to become actuaries. However, he or she must be competent in mathematics and have modelling and analytical skills,” Wong says.

He adds that there will be strong demand for actuaries in the next few years. “A career as an actuary is quite promising, as many become senior managers at insurance companies. Meanwhile, some choose to move to other roles, like marketing,” he says.

Qualifications are not the only factor to be considered to get a job in the insurance industry. Ethics, soft skills and knowledge of the insurance industry are also important. According to To, integrity is something that all staff at Manulife must have. “In every part of the value chain, it is important for our staff to put customers’ benefits first,” he says.

At the end of September 2013, Manulife had about 1,500 employees in Hong Kong and an additional 5,400 insurance agents – an agent figure 4 per cent higher than the previous year. To says that insurance agents remain one of the company’s major sales channels and Manulife will definitely seek to expand its agency workforce in future.

In contrast, Zurich Insurance Group has decided to stop selling life insurance products in Hong Kong through agents from the end of 2013. Knight attributes this to running costs, regulatory activity and the increased sophistication of the buying public. He says that insurance companies are increasingly using alternative sales channels, including direct marketing, bancassurance, telephone sales, brokers and independent financial advisers.

“Bancassurance is rapidly becoming the major distribution channel for personal life and general insurance products, eating into a market once dominated by agents,” he says. “This has been a trend that started in the late ’90s and should continue apace as Asian markets become more mature. Many Western countries experienced similar changes in the ’80s – mostly driven by regulation – and now, only a handful of traditional agents remain in operation.”

No matter which sales channels are the most popular, insurance companies as product manufacturers are here to stay. Compared to other financial services, the insurance industry offers long-term and stable career prospects.

“Insurance companies in general have very strong financial capability,” To says. “It is a long-term business, as an insurance policy can cover a period of several decades. We are building up our workforce in the same way as we run the business.”

In addition, Hong Kong is the regional hub for multinational insurance companies. Most insurers have their regional offices in the city, with the remaining in Singapore. This will continue to drive the industry’s demand for talent. “Many Hong Kong parent [companies] are relocating their staff to mainland China or other emerging countries, including Thailand and Vietnam,” Wong says.

Knight says that as companies expand across the region, they are experiencing a lack of local qualified personal. Staff relocation, therefore, has become the norm. He says that there is a general dearth of middle- and senior-management talent available, resulting in a regular merry-go-round as companies seek to fill positions that are necessary for the future of their businesses.

The regional expansion of multinational insurance companies therefore offers relocation opportunities for Hong Kong-based staff. At the same time, diversified product platforms offer the flexibility for employees to move to other functions within a company.