The new Asian jobs boom that poses a big problem for banks

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Banks in Singapore and Hong Kong are ramping up their recruitment of IT developers again, but there’s a problem – many of their jobs aren’t attractive enough to make candidates move.

Although vacancy levels are not what they were 10 years ago – when global banks were first establishing tech hubs in the two cities – openings for developers in 2017 are higher than in the recent past, say recruiters.

DBS alone plans to recruit 200 people, mainly developers and architects, into its technology team in the year to end-May 2018. Like rival OCBC, it is bringing development inhouse and reducing its reliance on external vendors.

Global banks are also hiring, especially for front-office facing roles that can’t be easily offshored to India. Credit Suisse is growing its ‘solutions’ technology team, which supports its Asian derivatives business, in Hong Kong and Singapore this year.

“There’s strong demand for IT developers right now. A lot of the big players – including Stan Chart, J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs and DBS – are all looking for them,” says Kyle Blockley, managing partner at KS International.

Banks are still hiring for “traditional” server-side Java and C++ roles, says Peter Barker, a partner at Atlas Global Search in Hong Kong. “But they also want full-stack developers – with MongoDB, AngularJS, or React knowledge, for example. And there’s growth for developers in infrastructure teams, helping to automate them and provide DevOps services. These candidates tend to need skills in Python or Ruby.”

But developers are not jumping to fill the opportunities banks have on offer. “People in front-office development have become so used to being constantly bombarded by recruiters that they now have a certain apathy to talking to recruiters or considering new roles,” says Barker.

The job market for developers has become “candidate short”, adds Shahbaz Khan, a Singapore-based section manager at recruiters Hays.

In Singapore – where expat developers from countries such as India make up a large proportion of banks’ tech workforces – further government restrictions on working visas are exacerbating the problem. “Foreign candidates working in Singapore are now more reluctant to move as it entails risking their visa position,” says Khan.

Developer vacancies at banks in Singapore and Hong Kong must now be “really interesting” just to attract initial applications, says Blockley from KS Consulting. Banks aren’t interrogating candidates at first-round interviews – they’re desperately trying to “sell” the job to them.

“We had a Java developer candidate recently, but the bank didn’t properly sell the position to him at the interview, so he decided his current role was much more interesting because he worked across different technologies,” adds Blockley. “The bank wasn’t using the latest tech, so moving would be a backwards step.”

Banks in Singapore and Hong Kong have started to cast a wider recruitment net in response to talent shortages. Soh Siew Choo, head of core systems technology at DBS, told us earlier this year that she’s targeting developers from outside the finance sector. Similarly, UOB has Google and Apple staff in its sights..

But recruiters say banks are meeting with mixed success. “Good developers these days come from start-ups, ecommerce firms or gaming companies, but the problem is that banks are seen as old school, with old platforms,” says Blockley. “Their environments are not dynamic enough for this new generation of developers.”

Developers increasingly want to work on “greenfield” projects, where they can build platform from scratch, says Barker from Atlas Search. But too many banking vacancies are focused on enhancing existing systems.

“A full stack-developer, for example, will be far more enthused by a bank that’s committed to digitalisation – mobile, cloud, APIs – than one that’s only paying lip service to it,” says Warwick Pearmund, an associate director at Pure Search in Hong Kong.

Image credit: Ridofranz, Getty

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