Banks in Asia jilt expat juniors

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The days of twenty-something expats living it up in Singapore and Hong Kong may be numbered as banks clamp down on hiring juniors from overseas.

Back in 1995, a 27-year-old Nick Leeson was drinking merrily at Harry’s Bar in Singapore’s financial district and trading his way towards the collapse of Barings Bank. A foreign trader of a similar age today would be lucky to snag a job in Asia in the first place.

“Current global economic conditions mean companies aren't looking overseas for juniors, as was the case before the financial crisis,” said Mark Enticott, managing director of recruitment firm Ambition in Hong Kong.

Budding young expats are also being rejected for front-office positions because they don’t have regional clients and don’t speak Mandarin, a language which is becoming more important for jobs in Hong Kong. In the back-office, banks want to offshore jobs to low-cost markets like India and the Philippines, not employ expensive foreigners in Singapore and Hong Kong.

In Singapore, even when companies want to hire juniors from abroad, the Ministry of Manpower, a government department, is making it tougher for them to get work visas, said Annie Yap, managing director of Singapore headhunters AYP Asia Group.

To address public concerns about Singapore’s dependence on overseas labour, the government announced in February 2013 that it would curb companies hiring foreign employees. Details of the plans have not been finalised, but employers will need to give “fair consideration” to Singaporeans when they hire.

Recruiters in Singapore said junior overseas candidates would find it more difficult than their senior counterparts to get visas. “That's mainly because they don’t offer the specialised skills that these days can be acquired more easily locally," said Farida Charania, chief executive of Singapore search firm Nastrac.

Banks in the city-state are making extra efforts this year to hire locals. “Growing and grooming the pipeline of local talent is an important priority,” said Moira Roberts, head of human resources, UBS Singapore.

How to get hired

There are still some job functions were young international candidates are being hired in Asia. Demand remains high for candidates in quantitative analytics, market risk and front-office software development, said Gerard Milligan, strategic account director at recruitment agency Randstad in Singapore. “Foreign-based job seekers who can demonstrate a mix of technology and business experience are highly valued in Singapore,” he added.

John Mullally, associate director, financial services, at recruitment agency Robert Walters in Hong Kong said junior foreigners were limited to roles where language and client relationships weren’t so important. “For example, there is still demand for actuaries in insurance companies and investment consultancies,” he said.

Mullally said an internal transfer was the easiest way for juniors to find work in Asia. “If that’s not possible, come to Asia in person and spend time networking and meeting with recruitment firms and prospective employers. There is no shortcut to this,” he added.

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