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George McFerran

Hong Kong and Singapore retain their talent as financial services struggles

BY GEORGE MCFERRAN

The employment markets in Hong Kong and Singapore financial services are less buoyant than they were 18 months ago; banks have been making redundancies, and recruitment remains comparatively low. Despite this, financial professionals show few signs of wanting to leave these cities. But while they still like living there, they are now considering local opportunities in other industries.

A recent survey by my company of 866 and 653 Singapore- and Hong Kong-based financial professionals respectively backs this up. At least three quarters of the respondents in both centres had no intention of moving countries in 2012. A similar proportion (80% in Singapore and 81% in Hong Kong) recommended their cities as places to live.

A mature economy, supported by strong links to China, makes Hong Kong an ideal place to wait out the global downturn, while Singapore remains the most developed and family-friendly country in the burgeoning South East Asian region. Their ability to retain talent within their shores has increased as Western markets struggle with slow growth.

Headhunters are not seeing an exodus either. One recently told me: “Most job seekers don’t want to relocate; on the contrary, those that are actively looking are keen to stay here. While Singapore is experiencing a squeeze economically, most consider Asia as the engine for world growth. If you’re already here, why move elsewhere?” His counterpart at a firm in Hong Kong added: “There is definitely a feeling that Hong Kong is more resilient than many other locations, and people want to remain here as a result.”

Hong Kong appeals on other levels, too. It is a truly international city and combines excellent entertainment options with the practical benefits of good infrastructure and reliable government services. When asked about the best aspects of living there, the survey respondents put safety (23%) and tax (18%) ahead of job opportunities (16%).

At 60%, safety was by far the dominant reason cited by financial professionals in Singapore. Quality of life (13%) came a distant second. Talk anecdotally to employees, and factors including public transport, accommodation, and English-language proficiency are also mentioned in Singapore’s favour.

Exploring other options
While geographical movement wasn’t particularly popular in the survey, half of the Hong Kong respondents were prepared to move to other industries in the city. Better job opportunities (43%) and greater remuneration (22%) were their main motivations. Alarmingly for Singapore’s financial employers, the figure was even higher there: three quarters of respondents would consider a sector swap. 

Parts of financial services, notably investment banking, are suffering. Deal flows are not strong enough to generate the large bonuses that bankers enjoyed during the boom times, which is making many question whether their stressful jobs and long hours are worth the effort.

Recruiters are hearing other murmurs of discontent. As one put it: “More candidates have expressed an interest in switching to non-financial services because of the recent turmoil in the industry. They are even willing to accept lower pay for a more stable job. And the limited number of openings in banking and finance means they are forced to look outside.”

But where, exactly, do financial professionals want to move? The top-three preferred destinations in Hong Kong were: technology, both hardware and software, (19%); media and advertising (11%); and travel and tourism (7%). In Singapore, the booming oil and gas industry was the most attractive alternative for a third of the respondents.

Of course securing jobs in these fields isn’t easy; corporate employers can afford to be selective when considering candidates without sector experience. But I have heard of bankers taking on in-house corporate finance roles, while support staff in financial services – including those in legal, IT, HR and accounting – often have the transferrable skills needed to make the move.

This is creating new challenges for financial employers. While in buoyant job markets they focused their retention efforts of reducing the relentless poaching of direct competitors, their talent is now under threat from outside the industry. To keep their top performers, they need to provide mapped-out career paths, enhanced training and development, internal movement opportunities, and better work-life balance. Convincing people to stay in Hong Kong or Singapore, however, is altogether easier. It’s the sector, not the cities, that is under the most pressure.
 

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Asian Banking & Finance. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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George McFerran

George McFerran

George McFerran is the Managing Director at eFinancialCareers Asia-Pacific.

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