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Short on skills

Published on Friday, 15 Mar 2013

Lack of able staff could harm HK firms

Hong Kong’s deft transition from a low-cost manufacturing base to a hi-tech knowledge economy, built on finance, services and international trade, is regularly cited as an example of successful evolution which countries around the world would do well to study.

Its success, though, can be no cause for complacency. As local employers are only too aware, the forces that are now driving the global economy, and the uncertainties which still prevail, mean that no one, whatever their sector, can even contemplate the possibility of standing still.

With competition ever intensifying, companies must develop new products, markets and efficiencies, and provide training for staff at all levels, to remain ahead of the game. Employees, in turn, must show the self-motivation to acquire the skills, flexibility and outlook needed in the modern workplace. They must be ready to adapt to new regulations and understand the changing demands of the broader business environment.

An increasing concern for many employers in Hong Kong, though, is a perceived shortage of practical skills and its impact on their prospects for future growth. This was highlighted in information collated for the 2013 Hays Asia Salary Guide and identifies a problem which must be addressed.

“We found that 93 per cent of employers say skills shortages have the potential to hamper their business,” says Marc Burrage, regional director of recruitment firm Hays in Hong Kong.

In addition, 49 per cent of respondents indicated that a lack of vital skills would “without a doubt” affect company operations, a significant increase from the 38 per cent giving that answer last year.

The survey questioned around 1,200 employers based in Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia. It found a specific demand for skills in engineering, sales and IT, with employers noting the growing difficulty of recruiting for junior and middle-management roles in these areas.

For senior posts, it is becoming tougher to find suitable candidates, particularly in sales, engineering, accounting and finance, and HR.

However, 68 per cent of employers said they were willing to hire or sponsor qualified overseas candidates, while 52 per cent have used flexible staffing approaches, such as short-term contracts, secondments or temporary positions, over the past 12 months. “This suggests that Asian employers are adapting to the economic climate and thinking outside the box to address the issue,” Burrage says.

Employers are also tailoring benefit packages to attract and retain the skills they need, and are now paying much closer attention to the value of items such as enhanced medical cover and life insurance.

Meanwhile, 60 per cent of employers said that a clear career path and  good training programmes have a “major or significant” impact on their ability to attract candidates with the right skills. Investment in extra training obviously pays off, but the key, as ever, is being able to hire people who can hit the ground running.

“A recurring theme is the need for fluently bilingual or multilingual candidates who can fit in at a foreign-owned company,” Burrage says. “The trend of multinationals moving to Asia is continuing and employers want candidates with the skills to adapt to different cultures, so their businesses can operate more effectively and efficiently.”

Employees, both existing and potential, are advised to take due note and appropriate action. They should also recognise that, while technology is changing many aspects of day-to-day business practice, the “traditional” skills remain as important as ever for anyone hoping to move up the career ladder.

If an employee can’t present ideas, communicate clearly, work well within a team, negotiate, and show financial acumen, prospects for advancement will be strictly limited. Companies have to move with the times, but they still measure future managers and possible leaders against a scale of real business qualities, not new “skills” such as popularity on Facebook or familiarity with the latest app.

As the economy rebalances after the downturn, budgets remain tight, so employers have to be clear about their priorities and feel sure about every job offer.

“As managers battle to justify each hiring decision, they are becoming more demanding about the level of skills and experience that they are willing to accept,” says Pallavi Anand, director of Robert Half Hong Kong. “This means candidates will often find themselves facing multiple rounds of interviews before a decision is made.”

Anand notes that while competition for top talent is now heating up in the banking, accounting and financial-services sectors, new regulations, global uncertainty and the “streamlining” of large organisations have fundamentally changed Hong Kong’s hiring landscape.

“Professionals with experience in compliance and risk management will continue to be in high demand,” Anand says. “Emerging Asian banks are expected to be the most active in the [finance-related] job market in 2013. Chinese banks, in particular, will ramp up recruitment. We are also seeing strong demand for technology staff, including software developers and IT-infrastructure specialists within the financial-services sector.”

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