Compliance, to put it mildly, has been a sought-after job function within the banking sector globally since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008 – and demand for staff still generally outstrips supply. The talent shortage is particularly acute in Singapore and Hong Kong, where vacancies for compliance jobs have skyrocketed but the talent pool hasn’t grown to match that of New York or London.
Earnings results from the Asia-focused banks HSBC and Standard Chartered have revealed large increases in their compliance and risk headcounts. And experienced compliance professionals in Singapore and Hong Kong are now regularly snapping up large pay rises to join rival banks.
While banks in Asia occasionally parachute in people from abroad, more often they want staff who understand both global and local regulations and have relationships with domestic regulators – or they want to train up local graduates for compliance jobs.
Only a few banks in Asia give you the chance to specialise in compliance as soon as you graduate. Barclays, for example, runs a compliance analyst programme in Singapore, while Deutsche Bank has one in both Singapore and Hong Kong. Penultimate year students may wish to apply for compliance internships at Deutsche or JPMorgan in the two cities.
“Banks that don’t offer a compliance-focused graduate scheme identify suitable candidates from their general rotational programmes where trainees would have gained some experience in compliance as well as in other functions,” says Matthew Fellows a consultant at Pure Search in Hong Kong.
You can also move into a junior compliance job after doing a traineeship in a related function such as audit, legal, risk, finance or operations, says Kate Harper, an associate director at recruiters Eximius Group in Hong Kong.
And such is the shortage of compliance talent in Asia that your route into the function need not even start at a bank. The most important early decision in your compliance career is whether to become a generalist or specialist, says Pathay Singh, managing director of The Compliance Grid in Hong Kong.
Generalists cover a broad range of areas – including policy, regulatory, advisory, training, surveillance and investigations – and it’s becoming common in Asia for them to begin their careers within the compliance consulting arm of a Big Four firm before transferring to a bank after a few years.
Specialists focus on one aspect of compliance – anti-money laundering (AML) investigations and sanctions due diligence are two of the hottest choices right now. AML experts sometimes start out investigating white-collar crime within commercial crime bureaus of police forces or within regulators like the Hong Kong Monetary Authority or Monetary Authority of Singapore, says Singh.
Many compliance professionals working in Singapore and Hong Kong today have degrees in law or accountancy. Business, economics, financial engineering and even engineering degrees are also common, says Harper. “Compliance professionals need to have studied a degree that injects the ability to read, translate and discuss complex documentation, deliver robust written communication, link governmental, economic and commercial issues, and understand financial products,” she adds.
The ACAMS and CFE qualifications are popular in Asia (as are, to a lesser extent, the CFA and CPA), but most compliance professionals attain them while working rather than straight after university.
While compliance officers operate to some extent behind the scenes, the role is not suitable for a wallflower. “To work in compliance it’s imperative to have strong people skills so you can delivery compliance reports to senior stakeholders in a concise and timely manner,” says Fellows from Pure Search. Harper adds: “The ability to positively effect a compliance culture, embedding best practices internally or on the client side, will be a big thing over the two years.”
And what of the long-term career prospects? “Compliance is a far more attractive career than five years ago. Banks are increasingly being inundated with new regulatory challenges and the attitude internally towards compliance officers has changed. No longer are they perceived as the bad guy, rather a trusted advisor,” says Fellows.
Singh from The Compliance Grid adds: “Compliance is becoming more popular for graduates because there is an element of giving back to society and because policing the increase of financial fraud and scandals across Asia has attracted continuous widespread attention.”