Career Advice Job Market Trend Report

Skills mismatch contribute to youth joblessness

Despite almost every business sector in Hong Kong trumpeting its desire to hire more young talent, the local unemployment rate is highest in the 20-to-29 age group.

There seems to be a mismatch between what employers look for in a youthful workforce and the qualities that this cohort possesses. Census and Statistics Department figures for July to September this year showed that 6.5 per cent of twenty-somethings were jobless, against the overall seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 3.5 per cent.

The 2013 Grant Thornton International Business Report (IBR) found that 88 per cent of local employers surveyed in the third quarter valued younger staff for being fast learners, compared with 76 per cent for the same period last year, while 88 per cent appreciated their adaptability, versus 82 per cent last year.

However, a significant proportion of this favoured demographic are perceived to have weaknesses that can outweigh their strengths.

Kelvin Kwong, staff partner of Grant Thornton Hong Kong, cites the most common reasons given by employers for turning down a young job applicant. “Seventy-six per cent said poor attitude, 72 per cent said low motivation, 70 per cent said poor interpersonal skills, 68 per cent said poor discipline, 66 per cent said poor communication skills and 54 per cent said they lacked the skills required for the role.”

This seems to point to hot demand for the brightest and the best in this age group. The IBR found that 25 per cent of respondents expect to hire in the next 12 months, up 2 percentage points on 2012.

Once a company has hired the best young talent, the question then arises of how to retain them. The IBR found that 78 per cent of employers expected to offer them a pay rise in the next 12 months, up 4 percentage points from last year’s figure.

However, companies also reported that they were promoting non-financial incentives, with 88 per cent citing recognition from senior management, and 80 per cent pointing to training opportunities.

Kwong says Grant Thornton recognises the sense in such an approach. “We strongly believe that young workers these days look beyond monetary benefits. They would like to work for a brand that they are close to. They prefer a dynamic work environment, where there is a strong team spirit and high morale. Young workers are more likely to stay with a well-structured company with a stable environment and approachable senior management.”

The experience at Starwood Hotels & Resorts illustrates this. Michael Pross, vice-president for human resources at the hotel group’s Greater China operations, has spent 17 years working for the company in the region.

Starwood now have over 120 hotels operating on the mainland and in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, and almost an equal number of properties scheduled to open in the next three to five years.

In recent years, Pross has seen a huge region-wide increase in demand for suitable young talent, but on the mainland, at least, he thinks the problem has been exacerbated by the one-child policy.

“If a family had three or four children and one was a doctor then they didn’t really mind where the others worked,” he says. “But now the parents have a really big influence on what the children do.”

To gain an edge in this highly competitive environment, Starwood not only promotes its management trainee programmes but also “recruits” students prior to their graduation, involving them in company activities and inviting them to Starwood social activities.

Starwood has conducted a lot of research into the various factors that keep staff loyal to a company and has come up with some surprising results.

 “We do know salary is important, but we’ve established it’s not in the top five [factors],” Pross says. “Some research shows it in the top five but other show it just outside. The key things that we’ve established are important for us to focus on are company culture, the opportunity for personal growth and development, career opportunities, the quality of our immediate managers, and making sure the job fit is right for fresh graduates.”

Pross says Starwood is actively addressing these areas and gathering feedback as to how effective they are.