The Asian job quest

Employers generally have the luxury of choice when it comes to external hiring decisions | Illustration: Carolyn Ridsdale

Locals may have the inside running, but opportunities still abound for finance professionals.

While doubts remain over the robustness of global economic growth, hiring activity in the Asian financial services market has been fairly buoyant for 12 months.

Most experts expect this trend to continue into 2014. Nevertheless, most financial institutions in Asia now operate under stricter cost control regimens that impact directly on hiring.

Good opportunities still exist for banking professionals in established and less-established markets, but the mandates are very specific. Employers generally have the luxury of choice when it comes to external hiring decisions.

Within the financial services space, growth has been strongest in the compliance, risk and audit areas, as well as for transaction banking and relationship managers.

The focus in the investment banking sector is mainly on replacement hiring and strategic hiring for particular technical skills.

“We don’t see any decline in opportunities for financial professionals across Asian markets at present,” says Christopher Aukland, regional director of Michael Page Hong Kong.

“However, for those without Asian language skills, the easiest route to a role in Asia is to transfer with your organisation. Cantonese, Mandarin and of course English are often requirements, as is local market knowledge.” Language skills are growing in significance.

There’s an increasing requirement for Mandarin skills in Singapore, Hong Kong and mainland China as a result of greater intra-regional investment and trade that often involves China, according to Denice Lee, a senior consultant with international human resources consultancy Change International. “As a result, the opportunities for overseas candidates without language and regional experience are steadily decreasing,” Lee says.

One outcome of the global financial crisis has been the demise of the generous expatriate salary package, with its housing, education and vehicle allowances.

For example, while companies in Singapore are still prepared to employ overseas financial professionals, they are far more likely to offer positions on local terms.

Most international companies operating in Asia want to increase the proportion of local nationals in senior positions.

This gives nationals with the right skill sets, especially those trained overseas, a strong competitive advantage when applying for positions.

Overseas jobseekers should certainly highlight specific APAC-related exposure in an attempt to counter this shift.

“In Singapore the employment of foreign versus local labour has become an increasingly political issue,” says Mark O’Reilly, managing director Asia of international financial recruiter Astbury Marsden.

“We have seen more local nationals assume more senior roles and greater responsibility here in recent years.”

Remuneration within the Asian financial sector has generally been flat for the past few years, while bonuses have shrunk considerably.

Finance professionals are an increasingly mobile workforce, with most senior executives spending time in several countries over the course of their career.

This means any geographical disparity in gross salaries has diminished significantly over the past decade and basic salaries in markets such as Singapore and Hong Kong are on a par with those in Western countries.

China

China’s financial jobs market has remained steady for the past year, thanks in part to two key trends: the continuing localisation of management teams in many tier-two cities such as Chengdu and Suzhou; and China’s economic shift to an internal consumer growth model, leading to increased recruitment in consumer goods and retail industries.

“There is always a strong demand for high-calibre accounting and finance talent in China,” says Clement Ma, manager of the accounting and finance division of recruiter Robert Walters in Beijing.

“MNCs [multinational companies] and Fortune 500 companies are starting to take note of rising labour costs in China and have gradually rolled out cost-reduction plans. However, foreign SMEs are always happy to spend extra money for quality candidates.”

Employers have become more cautious, with many conducting a series of interviews before making an offer.

"Economic pressures mean more companies are upskilling current employees instead of sourcing new talent." – Mark Ellwood, managing director of Robert Walters South-East Asia

Some remain willing to offer a reasonable salary increase, in most cases 10 to 15 per cent, to secure the right candidate.

Candidates who maintain salary expectations above this level will find their motivations for looking for a new role challenged, with employers unwilling to increase beyond their budgets and the typical market range for the role.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s financial jobs market remains buoyant.

Research by financial recruitment consultancy Robert Half shows that four in 10 firms plan to increase the number of permanent accounting and finance staff, with new projects and market penetration driving the need for the increased headcount.

Some big financial companies are still struggling to find enough skilled professionals to fill the roles they currently have vacant.

“Hong Kong, in particular, presents a good opportunity for skilled workers because of the demand for specialised finance and accounting roles, low taxes and the prevalence of spoken English,” says Pallavi Anand, director of Robert Half in Hong Kong.

“While senior roles within financial services firms are still dominated by veteran professionals, increasingly important for jobseekers in Hong Kong is fluency in Mandarin and knowledge of Chinese culture because of its proximity to China,” continues Anand.

“At the same time, companies also value candidates who have spent some time working in the West and have knowledge of global business practices.”

Within the banking and financial services sector in Hong Kong, professionals in financial and regulatory reporting, asset management, compliance, anti-money laundering officers and general compliance roles are most in demand.

There continues to be demand for talent in operations support, including technology.

“The retail, IT and telecommunications sectors were the standout performers for finance recruitment in Hong Kong over the past year,” says Christine Wright, operations director Asia for recruitment specialists Hays.

“Driving this trend in part was the removal of travel restrictions for mainland Chinese tourists, which led to new high-end luxury retail businesses setting up stores in Hong Kong.”

Growth in Hong Kong’s financial jobs market has been perhaps most obvious for traditional products, which banks returned to in order to grow lifeline revenue streams.

As a result, the territory has witnessed strong and steady demand across the commercial banking space and a high volume of new relationship and product vacancies.

Singapore

Singapore’s banking sector continues to come under pressure from global economic conditions.

Like many other banking markets, vacancy activity is still evident, but every hire must be justified.

“Hiring volumes in Singapore remain average, although many well-established corporate and banking and finance firms are increasing their focus on niche areas such as energy and project finance to increase market share,” says Burt Baptiste, managing director of recruitment solutions for Talent2 in North Asia. “Client expectations for matching job criteria in these areas remain high.”

Singapore employers have sought cost accountants in response to the focus on expense management, while tighter controls, compliance and a desire to mitigate risk has seen demand rise for internal auditors, internal controls and corporate governance experts.

One key trend over the past year was the steep increase in demand for contractors and temporary staff across all areas in finance.

The rising number of finance projects combined with the growing realisation of the benefits of a contingency workforce has driven this demand.

“Candidates with realistic salary expectations will have attractive career opportunities open to them in Singapore,” Wright says.

Malaysia

Malaysia’s finance market is robust as employers increase headcount and improve the overall skill sets of their finance departments.

Add the push for finance departments and shared service centres to increase their business value, and recruitment activity is high.

“We have observed healthy growth in the finance markets with growing demand for qualified finance professionals,” says Mark Ellwood, managing director of Robert Walters South-East Asia.

“This is due to the growth of shared services hubs in Malaysia. In the banking sector, professionals have been sought in the areas of capital management and Basel reporting.”

“Opportunities are abundant for returning Malaysians with market-rate salary expectations,” adds Steve Parkes, director of Michael Page Malaysia. “Overseas professionals with technical skills in the oil and gas space also remain in demand.”

Wright says: “While there is a belief from some candidates and employers that recruitment activity is cooling, we see no evidence to support this. The main challenge for employers is to run a timely and succinct process since quality candidates regularly receive multiple offers.”

Vietnam

The labour market in Vietnam slowed last year and this trend has continued into 2013.

The Vietnamese Government announced its Financial Systems Restructuring Plan earlier this year, with the aim of overhauling the sector and boosting long-term competitiveness.

This has increased the emphasis on educating the middle class who aspire to white-collar professions such as insurance, credit and investment.

“We have observed a lot of movement in the lower salary brackets, but not as much in the mid to senior levels,” Ellwood says. “Economic pressures mean more companies are upskilling current employees instead of sourcing new talent.

“In general, firms run by senior finance professionals are not willing to increase their market share at the risk of dropping the quality of service to their customers.”

International qualifications from membership bodies such as CPA Australia are now well recognised and strongly developed in Vietnam.

“While there is no preference for national or international, most employers prefer employees who have international qualifications and good language skills, especially English,” says Hau Le, audit director at Grant Thornton Vietnam.

“In terms of financial sector salaries, from 2007 to 2010 we saw big increases,” Le says. “There was significant movement of employees from audit and accounting firms to investment funds, securities, and banking and financial institutions. However, from 2011 onwards, this movement all but stopped and salaries have levelled off.”

Future focus

Today there are many talented Asians returning to Asia after working or studying abroad.

They bring with them the benefits of overseas experience and education, together with local experience, language skills and a demonstrable commitment to Asia.

Unsurprisingly, more and more employers are attracted to these high potential, long-term employees rather than overseas candidates on two-year contracts.

Nevertheless, financially skilled expatriates will always have opportunities in Asia’s markets.

While European and US banks have scaled back headcount in the region, Asian banks have been ramping up their recruitment drives, resulting in numerous opportunities for banking professionals who want international experience.

“It’s really up to the jobseeker what they are bringing to the table, whether it be language proficiency or experience in other key Asian financial markets,” Baptiste says.

“Financial companies want people who are looking to make long-term homes and are willing to make a commitment to the region. Those that can do this frequently find a well-paid niche.”

Selective skills

While there is a push to employ national rather than international, the financial sector across Asia still generally operates on a “best person for the job” model.

In reality, many of the skill sets Asia-based companies are seeking are highly specialised and the talent pool for such skills can be shallow, meaning firms must look further afield to make hires critical to their business.

This usually means the selected candidate has experience in Western markets on the resume. At the moment, the positions where such skill sets are relevant include:

  • Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and financial analyst roles, aligned with predicted M&A market activity
  • Financial managers and controllers
  • Regulatory-related experience, especially in market audit and risk, to meet compliance requirements
  • Business support roles from junior through to middle management

Compliance is a real area of demand because of major regulatory reforms across the region.

Global banks, in particular, are ramping up their anti-money laundering and know your customer teams to manage monitoring processes.

“A major regulation focus at the moment concerns derivatives, including Dodd-Frank, European Market Infrastructure Regulation and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act,” says Matthew Ng, divisional manager of banking and  financial services for Ambition in Singapore.

This article is from the November 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

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