Global investment banks in Hong Kong are stepping up their hiring of students from local universities, but competition for graduate traineeships is stronger than ever and banks are increasingly selective about who they hire.
Mandarin fluency is fast becoming a perquisite for most Hong Kong-based analyst jobs and you won’t ace an interview without an in-depth knowledge of Chinese economic trends, says Alex Wong, a former banker and Bain consultant who for the past six years has worked as a graduate careers coach.
Wong, who himself once clinched graduate offers from Bain, Bank of America and Deutsche Bank on the same day, talks to us about how to get a front-office traineeships in Hong Kong.
What made you want to coach students and graduates to get banking jobs in Hong Kong?
I was offering career coaching to students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong while I was still at Bain, but doing this part-time and pro bono is only going to get you so far – I’d always wanted to run my own business. The working environment at Bain was open and encouraged entrepreneurship – I could discuss my ideas with colleagues and they were supportive when I went it alone.
What type of graduates make the best candidates for banking jobs in Hong Kong?
Decent GPA is required, experience in the sector is highly preferred and not uncommon among top candidates The supply of potential applicants in Hong Kong is huge, so I work almost exclusively with students from finance and business courses – they have relevant skills and experience and are usually more employable than science and engineering students, given all the business communication courses and projects presentations they do.
By sector experience, do you mean an internship?
Yes, an internship is almost a must to secure a graduate analyst offer, but these days in Hong Kong even the CV you use to get an internship as a second-year student should include some type of working experience. Perhaps that’s taking part in an M&A pitching competition or using industry contacts to get some ad hoc unpaid work – one student I know flew to New York and worked at a bank there for a while for free. You need to plan your banking career as early on as possible. Don’t leave it until your final year – your competitors won’t.
What’s your key piece of advice for success in graduate job interviews?
You have to define how best to sell yourself during an interview – banks often reject people because the stories they tell about themselves just aren’t relevant enough. I take people through a long list of competency-based interview questions – for example, tell me about a time when you used your initiative. But students often don’t give the right type of answer, so we have to brainstorm until we get it right. If you’re selling how good a leader you are, give examples – talk about how the finance society you were involved in was actually newly formed so you played a leadership role to build it up.
How do you coach someone to answer technical questions?
It's challenging for students to realise that professionals from different business areas actually have very different point of views on the financial market. For example, if you want a sales and trading job in Hong Kong, you need to know about what’s driving the Chinese economy and thus stock prices. And if you were interviewing for an IBD role right now, you’d probably be asked a question around the Alibaba IPO.
Do you tailor your coaching from bank to bank?
What department you want to work in is actually more important than which bank – if it’s in sales, for example, you’ll have to demonstrate your people skills throughout your answers. But there are also tips for different banks – Jamie Dimon is key to the culture at JPMorgan so if you’re interviewing with that bank, read up all you can about him.
We reported last week that banks in Asia were targetting local universities. Would you agree?
Definitely. At graduate and summer-analyst level, the HK offices of global investment banks are all now focusing on local universities – it’s one of the most fundamental changes I’ve seen over the past five years. This is partly because the IPO market in HK is now dominated by mainland companies, so banks want to employ more Chinese nationals, native Mandarin speakers, to interact with Chinese clients. The talent supply is increasing at the same time because more mainland Chinese students are studying at universities like HKU and CUHK. The concentration of Chinese nationals is higher in Hong Kong than in US or European campuses – the recruitment effort is much less. A lot of HK courses incorporate a one-year stint overseas, so these students also come with some international experience.
Can you give examples of this local hiring focus?
A leading US investment bank used to give offers for its Hong Kong summer internships to overseas-based students in December, before it even offered any to local students. But last year it reversed this and is now giving Hong Kong students their offers first. Spring weeks, like those in London – where local students spend a few days participating in banks’ competitions and workshops – are also becoming more common here. UBS started this about four years ago and now five or so other banks have done this.
Have you noticed any other important trends in graduate hiring in Hong Kong?
Associate-level programmes for MBA student have traditionally been a focus of banks in Hong Kong, but I think they’re now emphasising analyst recruitment. When Goldman Sachs visited campuses in HK recently, they said ‘we’re here to hire analysts, not associates’. Banks can go all across the world to get their MBAs, but as I’ve mentioned, they like hiring analysts locally.
Do you need to be bilingual in Mandarin and English to get a graduate job in Hong Kong?
Yes, the majority of roles are bilingual. You need Mandarin because of the client base but you still need good English as these are global banks – in sales and trading English is actually more important than Mandarin as you’re interacting more with colleagues who might come from London or New York. The top mainland Chinese students have good English these days, while their Mandarin is obviously better than Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong locals, so they often have the edge when it comes to language.