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Mixing hopes with realism

Published on Friday, 11 Jan 2013
Jobseekers have reason to be cheerful in 2013 as employers move from caution to cautious optimism.
Photo: Xinhua

Hong Kong may sit at the centre of the world’s most dynamic regional economy, but local workers know this is no automatic cause for celebration. With the international situation still clouded by uncertainty, they have the sense to see that success depends on maintaining a competitive edge. This comes from capitalising on the city’s well known existing advantages, which depends on employers being able to invest, innovate and expand by keeping overall costs under control.

Workers’ realism regarding the way things stand was evident in the Classified Post’s Pay and Job Mobility Survey for Q4 2012. Based on feedback from 1,100 participants working at various levels across a wide range of industries, the results show that 47.4 per cent of respondents expect a salary increase of no more than 5 per cent in their next pay review.

A more optimistic 36.2 per cent said they have hopes of a rise of anything up to 10 per cent, but the general mood is still one of caution and belt-tightening, with the results only marginally changing since Q3 2012.

The number of respondents intending to change jobs over the next six months rose to 57.9 per cent, up from 55.1 per cent in Q3 2012. This, however, is likely attributable to seasonal ambitions – once bonus levels are known – rather than a significant change in other factors.

Offering his own take on job-market trends, Ian Strutton, director of recruitment firm Experis Hong Kong, says that operating costs top the agenda for many businesses. As a result, hiring decisions can be slow.

“I don’t know any sector where clients are giving substantial salary increases,” he says. “For particularly high performers, which the organisation wants to retain, increases could be above market level, but more usually it is a percentage across the board.”

In his view, despite positive signs, local business confidence remains fragile. While candidates may want to move and employers may have plans to hire, there is unlikely to be a major uptick in recruitment activity in the first three months of 2013.

“You still hear the comment that it is a ‘candidate short’ market, but this is because employers are looking for good people with relevant experience and skills who, of course, are in demand in every sector,” Strutton says.

The pendulum has certainly swung since the pre-financial-crisis days, with employers once again calling the shots. Now the hiring process takes longer, as more candidates are considered and more managers having input on headcount decisions.

Overall, though, this simply has to be seen as part of the natural economic cycle on the climb out of recession.

The banking and finance sector, Strutton says, may see further cutbacks, but that is no bad thing. The industry has to reshape itself in line with regulatory and shareholder expectations, and any negative impact on other sectors should be minimal.

In contrast, areas such as IT, sales, hospitality and engineering should start to see significant job creation as 2013 advances.

“A lot of retailers and other organisations expanding in Asia are making Hong Kong their regional headquarters,” Strutton says. “They will be staffing up their finance, admin and support functions to run those operations.”

Chris Aukland, regional director for Michael Page, says that for Hong Kong to maintain its status as a platform to invest in Asia, it must offer the required talent at a reasonable cost. Organisations not getting fair value will simply look elsewhere.

“Hong Kong has a highly skilled workforce, but large organisations typically start by looking for low-cost centres when they relocate or outsource,” he says. “For new jobseekers, it therefore pays to be flexible in terms of location.”

He says that apart from financial services and banking, the majority of clients in other industries are now moving from caution to cautious optimism about their prospects for the next year.

There is still a huge amount of investment flowing into China from around the world. The knock-on benefits should steadily boost local recruitment demand in everything from consumer products and luxury retail to IT and pharmaceuticals.

“There is still a strong pool of talent in Hong Kong, with more candidates now keeping an eye out for opportunities,” Aukland says. “We also see employers offering more target-driven rewards based around performance that are not just linked to base salary.”

Ocean Fu, director of marketing and client solutions for Greater China at Kelly Services, says that initiatives to support newer industries are also paying off. The expansion of the Science Park, for example, is forecast to create up to 4,000 new jobs for engineers, technical staff and scientists over the next three years.

The government-backed development of education services, testing and certification, and environment-related industries, meanwhile, will give younger jobseekers the chance to build a career in up-and-coming sectors.

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