Banks in Hong Kong and Singapore are ramping up their hiring of technologists with artificial intelligence skills, but are inevitably encountering a lack of candidates who have AI experience.
BNP Paribas, though, is trying to grow its own AI talent from scratch in Asia. As part of its 2018 APAC graduate training programme, the French firm is now offering Hong Kong-based AI-focused analyst jobs.
“We’ve been training digital and tech grads for a while, but this is the first time we’re hiring grads specifically in AI development in APAC,” says Jeffrey Ng, head of fast IT in BNP’s digital and innovation office in Hong Kong, without providing a headcount number.
The new hiring drive, however, puts BNP in competition with big technology companies and start-ups, which are also recruiting grads for AI roles. “It can be challenging to find grads here because traditionally Hong Kong was a sales centre for tech companies, not a development hub, so technology hasn’t been such a popular choice at university,” he says. “But that’s now changing.”
Tech giants like Google and Alibaba also have a slightly different focus to their AI hiring, adds Ng. “A lot of their university recruits have got PhDs and are already cutting-edge AI experts. Their main emphasis is on a single technology skill area, whereas we want grads to have broader technical skills and also have business acumen – people who might otherwise be trying to build a start-up in their bedroom.”
AI experts in banking cannot just be “brilliant programmers”; they must understand customer problems and come up with “real-life business solutions”, says Ng. This demands a trait often absent from both junior and senior technologists: a genuine passion for the finance industry.
BNP looks favourably on applicants who have passed (or nearly passed) any level of the CFA and who have taken part in a trading or business-plan competition related to digital or AI. Those who make the cut complete a 12-month AI-focused rotation across different business units and are then assigned a team to work in full time
“When building AI, we expect our grads to become domain experts in the bank’s functional areas too,” says Ng. “We want them to learn the banking business, and enjoy working in banking.”
Ng says the new recruits won’t just be supporting the experienced techies; they will be working on delivering in-house AI prototypes, proof of concepts and minimal viable products.
“A lot of banks focus their AI development on securities trading and retail banking. I want to go wider,” says Ng. “In wholesale banking, for example, there are legal and trade issues, such as document extraction, that it can help with. AI can apply to any domain in banking and tackle issues ranging from extracting useful information via linguistic processing, to onboarding, to making better use of data to understand client needs.”
Won’t AI ultimately spell the end for some banking jobs, especially those in operations? “Technology is there to make people’s lives more efficient and better. Inevitably, there will be some impact on how people work in banking and some staff may need to upskill in the future,” says Ng. “However, the net effect of AI in banking will be to make jobs more interesting by cutting out some of the repetitive and simple manual processing. Young people increasingly don’t won’t to go into mundane banking jobs, so AI will make careers in the industry more attractive.”
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