Guest Comment: not all doom and gloom in Melbourne market

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Unlike many of the world's financial hubs - such as New York, London, Singapore and even Sydney - the global economic crisis hasn't hit Melbourne's financial services sector as hard or as fast. That's not to say Melbourne hasn't been affected by the economic crisis, indeed it has, but in comparison with its global counterparts, the city is still standing relatively firm.

There are a few reasons for this. Melbourne is a smaller financial hub and most of its major players are domestic banks and insurers, which haven't been exposed to the full extent of the crisis like the global investment banks have. From an employment perspective, a few new opportunities have also opened up as larger financial institutions look to build their risk, compliance and reporting functions.

Certainly, Melbourne isn't as buoyant as it was six to 12 months ago and it is anticipated that things will get worse over the next few months, before they get better. However, even in times of recession, there is always demand for good candidates, and with the right skill sets, these candidates will find employment.

For example, senior contracting roles will become more popular as the economy declines further. The use of professional contract labour at a strategic and senior level is seen as beneficial when markets are volatile. From a cultural point of view, companies tend to prefer this route for the flexibility it offers, and because the hire and departure of contract staff usually has a lower impact on morale than permanent job losses.

These roles often provide significant opportunities for candidates, such as complex and challenging work with a distinct focus on how to save an organisation time, money and effort. Contracting is also perfect for candidates who might be feeling undervalued in their current roles, particularly as firms introduce promotion or salary freezes.

As for predictions regarding employment trends over the next six months, it's all a case of how long the downturn continues for. Lessons from previous economic downturns tell us that there are four key employment stages which companies tend to follow. The first usually involves the release of non-critical contracting staff, followed by a headcount freeze on permanent hiring (the second stage) and then permanent headcount reduction (the third stage). Then finally, as things begin to stabilise, companies start re-hiring contractors to keep a proportion of their human capital costs variable on the balance sheet.

Melbourne is arguably in the second phase of this cycle. In September and October, we saw the end of a number of non-critical employment contracts, followed by a decline in the number of firms looking for permanent staff. But there will come a time in the not too distant future when companies take stock of their situations and realise there is still work to be done. It is at this point that they usually begin to re-hire contract staff.

For now, job seekers should concentrate on how they can make themselves more attractive. This includes being more flexible and open to contract work; investing in further education and training; executing first-round interviews well to stand out from other potentials; and researching and understanding the local market.

Candidates should also pay particular attention to how they can add value in improving company efficiency, and have clear examples of where they have achieved time and cost savings in previous roles. These, rather than behavioural competencies, will be viewed as key to the hiring process during this difficult economic time.

Andrew Brushfield is the Victorian director of Robert Half International.

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