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Editor’s Take: Chinese banks raise the recruitment stakes in Hong Kong

It’s been a plentiful year employment-wise for the likes of BOCI, CCB, CICC and ICBC in Hong Kong. As Western banks were busy fighting the financial crisis, Chinese firms took their chance to snare staff and to raise their recruitment levels.

And even as the globals now begin to slowly rebuild their headcount, Chinese banks remain aggressive players in the hiring market and are ramping up their compensation to entice good candidates who might once have not considered working for them.

But first, a reality check. The roles on offer aren’t exactly appealing to your average investment banker. Most vacancies are on the consumer/corporate side; from client-facing branch managers and relationship managers, to support staff in risk, compliance, accounting and finance.

Chinese language skills are of course essential, but PRC firms are also keen on bilingual candidates for their HK offices, especially those with experience at foreign banks and/or an overseas education.

As mainland banks have increased both the quantity and quality of their workforce, their reward polices have also shifted up a gear.

When Western financial institutions in HK went through their mid-decade hiring boom, their Chinese counterparts remained reluctant to pay the rates required to take on top talent.

No so now. China-headquartered banks are trying to stay competitive on compensation, especially for front-office roles, where they often match the salaries of foreign firms, or even offer 20 per cent increments.

Pay is more prosaic in the back office, but is usually within 10 to 15 per cent of what a global bank would offer for a similar position.

The changing attitudes to recruitment and compensation are perhaps most apparent at the four-to-five-year experience level. In the past, Chinese banks regarded these candidates as too immature to warrant lavish salaries, but today they are increasingly prepared to pay top dollar.

And because Chinese banks are now searching for staff at market rates and attempting ambitious poaching raids on international firms, they’ve been forced into using recruitment agencies.

As one headhunter recently told me: “They have to use us because they need people urgently and they just don’t have the pipelines and databases to source the right kind of candidates in the timeframe they want.”

HR “teams” at Chinese banks are notoriously under-resourced, with only one or two people handling hiring across all their Hong Kong divisions (in contrast to large Western firms which have in-house recruiters assigned to each banking unit). That’s a tall order when you’re being told to take on about 20 to 30 new staff every month.

But despite being short on HR professionals and new to the agency game, Chinese banks can sometimes drive down fees for high-level searches, obtaining favourable rates of about 20 per cent, rather than the usual 25-30 per cent.

The bargaining power is balanced out because recruiters are still desperate for work and are keen to get an early foothold into an emerging sector of banking that they had previously neglected, or even ignored.

Even the best headhunters, however, still face sizable challenges when convincing candidates to join Chinese banks. The opportunity must often be a step up in seniority, offering not just more money, but a bigger team to manage and greatly increased responsibility.

Can Chinese banks keep competitive in the employment market, or is their time in the hiring sun about to run out? Let us know below.

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  1. They can hire from Switzerland, with the end of banking secrecy now the banks are expecting zero growth in the country.

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