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The sleeping giant awakes: insurance recruitment is on the rise

International and local insurance companies in China have pressed the hiring button again as they bid to eke out a share of a potentially massive market.

Recruitment was quiet in early 2009, but has picked up by almost 50 per cent since July, according to Hays regional director Emma Charnock. “And it looks set to grow further, after speaking to many of the leading firms. Compared with six months ago, recruitment for them today is booming,” she adds.

Brodie McDougall, manager, Michael Page Finance, agrees: “Over the past six months we have noticed a steady demand for revenue-generating sales staff, with several companies suggesting that they will begin hiring more back-office staff after Chinese New Year.”

Like most sectors within Chinese financial services, the recent, rapid growth of the insurance industry has left it suffering from skill shortages.

What types of roles are particularly in demand? Junior actuaries are sought after, says Charnock, as are more senior staff in the following functions: investments, capital management, accounting and finance, claims underwriting, sales, risk management, and bancassurance.

Challenges for the foreigners

Foreign firms have flocked to China this decade, but they have found it difficult to make an impact. While they boasted an 8.9 per cent share of the all-important life assurance market in 2005, this had fallen to 4.7 per cent in the first half of this year, according to a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Regulations prevent overseas groups from operating independently in China, forcing the likes of Aviva and Allianz to establish joint ventures. Meanwhile, established domestic competitors, such as China Life and Ping An, have developed new products to sustain their market stranglehold.

Despite these challenges, PwC predicts that annual premium income in life assurance in China will double over the next three years, offering amply opportunities for international players to expand.

But global insurers can only grow if they can attract Chinese professionals. “Most western firms are focused on understanding the domestic market, so are focused on hiring talent with strong networks,” says McDougall.

Expat expectations

While the ideal candidate is living locally, expat Chinese are not entirely excluded from the insurance job market.

“We have noticed a significant increase in Chinese returnees over the second half of this year in comparison with the same time in 2008. This is injecting good quality candidates – with experience in Europe, the US and Australia – into the local market,” explains McDougall.

But, warns Charnock, some expats have inflated expectations of the money they will make in the mainland. Chinese insurance salaries are about 25 per cent lower than those in more developed markets, she says. “For senior candidates there is some flexibility on salary, however, for less experienced staff these differences are difficult to match.”

Future forecasts

Recruitment needs are expected to rise over the longer term as the infant insurance industry tries to capture a bigger slice of middle-class Chinese wealth. Penetration rates in the life sector are just two per cent, but McKinsey, the consultancy, has forecast that compound annual-growth rates will exceed 15 per cent between now and 2014.

“China is the biggest emerging target market in Asia and insurers are ramping up their strategies to join the industry by trying to forecast growth through headcount,” adds Charnock.

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