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The Asia hiring party is over as Mandarin becomes a must

Over and out

Over and out

Asia remains alluring to Western bankers – just ask any recruiter in Singapore or Hong Kong about the reams of resumes they are receiving from would-be expats.

But while banks in the region are still hiring some foreign candidates, they are increasingly looking for people with local skills. Hong Kong employers, in particular, are clamouring for Mandarin speakers with clients on the mainland.

At eFinancialCareers roundtables in Singapore and Hong Kong last month, HR representatives from leading international banks said that headcounts likely will remain flat in 2013, barring unexpected global growth. This is good news if you’re already in Asia as layoffs should taper off, but unwelcome news to those looking to embark on a career in the region.

Maturing markets

The job markets in Singapore and Hong Kong are beginning to resemble those in the West with long job-approval times and worries about the economic stability of employers. The two financial centres have grown up and are increasingly employing locals rather than parachuting in expats to develop the market.

This change is especially marked in Singapore. “As the economy progresses in tandem with greater wealth growth in the Southeast Asian region, the financial sector here is evolving into a higher-value, higher-cost environment,” says Mark Billington, Southeast Asia regional director for ICAEW, a professional body for chartered accountants. “There will be little growth in general within financial service in Singapore as the market is now mature, with limited onshoring or new big projects being kicked off any time soon,” says Kyle Blockley, director, KS Consulting, Singapore.

Local lessons

Banks want local experience for the roles that are available. “Putting aside the technical skills required for each specific role, firms continue to look for talent that is equipped with strong emotional intelligence and relevant Asia language skills,” says Michelle Martin, head of Asia Pacific graduate recruitment, J.P. Morgan. Corporate-banking relationship managers needed in Hong Kong must “bring Chinese relationships and language skills,” says Kate Harper, director, banking and financial services, Connected Group, Hong Kong.

Bankers who don’t speak Mandarin are now finding it increasingly difficult to get shortlisted for jobs in Hong Kong, says Mark O’Reilly, managing director, Astbury Marsden, Hong Kong. “There are still plenty of jobs in Hong Kong where you just deal with other English speakers, but with the growth of Chinese banks, insurers and other corporates, those jobs are a shrinking proportion of the pie,” says O’Reilly.

While about 40 percent of the recruiter’s roles demanded Mandarin in 2012, that percentage will increase in 2013, he says. M&A, management consultancy (dealing with Chinese clients), private banking, corporate finance, and credit risk are the sectors where the language is most useful.

Even in risk and compliance – two job functions recruiters say will grow in 2013  – knowledge of local as well as international regulations is essential to most positions. Gary Lai, managing director, Southeast Asia, Charterhouse Partnership, Singapore, says he expects banks to ramp up their risk and compliance headcounts between 8 and 15 percent in Singapore over the next year to deal with Basel III and domestic reforms.

Foreign dilemmas

The emphasis on local recruitment means firms have even tougher requirements when hiring from overseas in order to justify the increased expense and risk of relocation, according to roundtable delegates in Singapore and Hong Kong. Successful foreign candidates are typically either senior leaders who don’t have regular client contact with Mandarin speakers, or those with both sought-after and internationally transferable skills in jobs like IT or product control.

Talent localisation is a long-term trend, and despite the current dearth of vacancies, experts say the region’s financial workforce will ultimately enjoy more opportunities. In Singapore, for example, the ICAEW predicts that jobs will grow by 100,000 between 2007 and 2017, lead by sectors such as corporate banking, IT, fixed income, currencies and commodities trading, wealth management, risk management and compliance.

“The natural shift from west to east is accelerated by the financial crisis as well as increased regulations and taxations in Western economies,” says Billington from the ICAEW. “Singapore should benefit from light-touch regulation, extensive commercial opportunities from regional growth, fast-rising demand for wealth management services in Asia, and also from low taxation and a large local talent pool.”

Comments (7)

  1. Mandarin isn’t really necessary to do most jobs in Hong Kong, but is increasingly used by recruiters, particularly in-house, as a way of filtering out candidates. This means that the workforces in Hong Kong are becoming less diverse in terms of ethnicity and experience. When a downturn in the credit cycle comes in Hong Kong, as it will, it will be far worse because of a lack of risk staff who have seen downturns in other areas, and as a result the brakes will be applied too late to lending in the region.

  2. They are actually set at protecting livelihood of their people. In the UK on the other hand as the crisis hit in 2007 the offshoring trends of high value jobs to Asia especially India and Singapore rocketed. Boards of RBS, Lloyds and Barclays should learn from Chinese.

  3. While protecting local jobs is important, international financial centres need an international breadth of experience to flourish. You can only go so far with a limited skills base. Most local employees in the region simply won’t have experienced a full credit cycle.

  4. Mandarin is increasingly necessary, especially so when dealing with the Chinese. I’ve attended meetings with clients whereby it starts off in English… And somewhere along the line, a request for everyone to speak mandarin will crop up. My HK colleagues will suck it up and try their best to accommodate them too.

    Move with the times my friends.

  5. Like somebody rightly pointed out, mandarin isn’t really necessary to do most jobs in HK; it’s simply a case of protectionism which is the result of the financial crisis; HK is not the only culprit, I think the US politicians are also talking tough about businesses limiting off-shoring and related stuffs. The danger, however is that HK will lose its status as an int’l financial centre; maybe we may rightly tag it a Chinese regional centre in some years in the future if these protectionist recruiters do not realize what they are into…Diversity as obtains in London and to some extent in Singapore is what makes a city international not just how big and efficient the financial system is..else we will tag Shanghai an int’l financial centre…

  6. Really it’s also a case of extreme laziness on the part of recruiters who can’t be bothered trying to place people with the right skills in the right places. The recruiters themselves suffer an extreme lack of testicular fortitude to actually engage with their own clients as to what their hiring needs really are.

    In fact, the recruitment industry in HK is essentially in a crisis itself. If I had a dollar (even 1 HKD) for every incompetent recruiter that I have met in HK, then I would never need to work again.

    I’ve helped many of my Chinese-speaking friends to obtain jobs in HK based almost entirely on their language skills, where here in Sydney, they would be told to wait at least another 2 – 3 years before trying to do that type of role. The “expert” recruiters in HK, however, feel that “being able to relate to” Chinese clients is more important than getting the job done correctly.

    Eventually, China will actually need skills in finance, because when ultra-strict regulations are gradually reduced (which will be necessary to continue expanding the economy in the future), credit crises are a real problem, as they have been in the west. If you thought the US was stupid, just wait until you see what a finance industry with great language skills and no finance experience will result in.

    Should be quite the spectacle. I hope the recruiters who put those people in their roles end up on the street. But they won’t. They would have already got their retainer and probably set sail elsewhere.

  7. People who say HK isn’t international enough in terms of work force obviously never got the chance to work there. Multinational firms usually headquarter in either HK or SG in Asia and the heads are quite often foreigners who relocate as expats.

    It may be more valid to say for more junior jobs the opportunity for an aspiring expat is less. But this is more of a business reality than of conspiracy theories such as protectionism (absolute bull) and Asians not having been through full credit cycle.

    Speaking of full credit cycle, I wonder how many people who wanted to work in HK actually cared about or studieed its history and commercial uniqueness? It is the worlds freest city to do business, worlds most outward looking, most exposed small open economy. Not only is HK more sensitive to macro swings, it has gone through more frequent cycles than normal countries have.

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