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Mood of optimism as firms look to recruit

Published on Friday, 23 Jul 2010
Improving trade flow will underpin recovery, but Hong Kong must also develop new service sectors.
Photo: EPA
Source: SCMP/admanGo survey
SCMP Graphic
Source: SCMP/admanGo survey
SCMP Graphic
Source: SCMP/admanGo survey
SCMP Graphic

At first glance, figures tracking new jobs created in Hong Kong give plenty of cause for optimism. Employers in all the main sectors have increased their headcount in recent months, and the usual signs of a more buoyant labour market - escalating salaries, talk of skill shortages, and multiple offers for good candidates - are clearly visible.

The SCMP/admanGo recruitment report shows 38,063 positions advertised in the second quarter. This represents a jump of 13.9 per cent compared with the 33,430 openings recorded in the first three months of the year, and a 58 per cent rise from the 24,094 jobs advertised in last year's recession-hit second quarter.

Noting such trends, Emma Charnock, regional director at Hays in Hong Kong and China, is upbeat about prospects for the coming months. She expects that continuing improvement in economic conditions will spur renewed enthusiasm to recruit across many industries.

"The number of vacancies has been steadily increasing and this is likely to continue in the second half of 2010," she says.

Particularly in the banking, accountancy and financial services sectors, she has seen confidence pick up "dramatically". As a result, employers are sometimes finding it difficult to source suitable candidates locally, so they are extending their search to the mainland and further afield. "To fill vacancies, some employers are increasing compensation levels to attract the best talent, so we expect a rise in the number of candidates leaving secure roles in search of new opportunities," Charnock says.

Similarly, Anthony Thompson, managing director for Hong Kong and South China at recruitment firm Michael Page International, tends to see the glass as half full, despite the recent rise in Hong Kong's overall unemployment rate to 4.6 per cent.

For him, the most obvious measure of progress is the need to hire extra consultants to cope with strong client demand.

Companies specialising in everything from trade and manufacturing, to IT, advertising and financial services are pushing ahead with plans for hiring, and the expectation is that this will continue throughout the second half of the year.

"As a business, we saw a material level of growth from quarter one to quarter two, and have substantially increased our own headcount," Thompson says. "We are looking for strong, if not spectacular, growth for the rest of the year but, with a few concerns emanating especially from the European market, there is still a healthy level of caution."

Joseph Tan, director and Asian chief economist at Credit Suisse's private banking division, sounds the same note. He may be forecasting 6 per cent GDP growth for Hong Kong this year, but sees some risks to the up side and is quick to quell any runaway sense of optimism.

Tan highlights the need for Hong Kong employers to be fast on their feet and not to assume that emergence from recession will mean a return to the trade patterns and business models of the past.

He describes the local economy as being at a "point of inflection". Fundamentally, it is still open, export dependent, and leveraged towards high growth and international trade. Assuming no major defaults or further shocks occur in Europe or the United States, there is going to be a "slow grind upwards", from which Hong Kong will benefit. But in terms of broader long-term strategy, Tan contends the focus must shift.

"Hong Kong has the massive benefit of the Chinese hinterland," he says. "You can't compete with such a giant on the manufacturing side, but you can use it to your advantage. Hong Kong needs to create a new service sector focusing on Chinese consumers. With the lift in their purchasing power and the strengthening of the currency, this will be hugely beneficial. But a smooth transition will require education and training, as well as the adaptability to evolve in a short space of time."

City University's economist, Dr Li Kiu-wai, also believes local businesses and job-seekers must rethink their approach. Specifically, they should rediscover the community's can-do approach and entrepreneurial spirit, rather than continually looking to the government to extend support in one form or another.

"Employers must do more to get back to the traditional non-interventionist style, led by the private sector," Li says. "Because of the recession, we expect a lot from the government, but I still believe in the free market and entrepreneurship. If people really are creative, nothing will stop them." 

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