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Overworked Asian compliance pros turn backs on banking careers

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On the face of it, compliance looks like one of the best, or at least most stable, careers in the Asian banking sector.

Constant regulatory change is creating vacancies almost regardless of market conditions, while a compliance talent shortage in Singapore and Hong Kong means a 30% salary increase is likely if you join a new bank. Banking compliance professionals have become middle-office “strategic partners” to the business, all but avoiding the offshoring afflicted back-office jobs in both cities.

But despite ample opportunities on offer at banks, recruiters in Asia have noticed a recent increase in enquiries from compliance professionals wanting to leave banking for jobs in the corporate sector. We spotted a similar trend in April – M&A bankers going in-house – but in compliance the career change is motivated primarily by work-life balance, not by job security.

“Regulations are getting increasingly complex and are changing relentlessly. The time and challenges required to implement them are adding to the workload, hours and pressure in compliance,” says Theresa Pang, a consultant at recruiters Laurence Simons in Singapore. “With billion-dollar fines being handed out like candy by U.S. and international regulators, this pressure-cooker environment will only get worse.”

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While banks in Asia are by no means experiencing a mass exodus, compliance departments in other industries are targeting banking employees because they sometimes have difficulty finding talent in the current “tight” labour market, says Gary Lai, managing director, Southeast Asia, at recruiters Charterhouse Partnership in Singapore.

Large companies in sectors burdened by complex regulatory requirements – in particular oil and gas, commodities, gaming and real estate – are most likely to poach from banks, says Pang. “Compliance concepts in these industries can be very similar to banking, particularly for commodity-trading firms and real-estate investment houses,” she adds.

Such companies like to hire banking-compliance folk because they are used to working under “tremendous pressure and scrutiny”, says Craig Brewer, a director at recruitment agency Five Ten Group in Singapore. “This can be a huge advantage for another employer as the new recruit is used to adapting to change on a seemingly daily basis.”

You’re more likely to break away from banking if your skills and experience are transferrable to another sector. If you work in trade-finance compliance, for example, joining a shipping company may be an option, says Christina Ng, executive director at LMA Recruitment in Singapore

So far this year it’s mainly been junior and mid-level compliance professionals in Asia who have been leaving banking. “There is less opportunity cost involved and candidates at this level are hearing from their peers that it can be an easier life in a corporate,” says Ng.

Challenges may await when you cross over, however. “Banking compliance professionals have never been paid more than they are now, so if you change industries, you are looking at a significant pay cut,” says Brewer from Five Ten. “And while in principle, compliance is compliance, specialist banking areas like trade surveillance and anti-money laundering require very different skills and product and sector knowledge from, say, compliance roles in a pharmaceutical company,” he adds.


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