If moving to Asia for a banking role is among your New Year’s career resolutions, you will need to start meticulously planning your job search to avoid the many potential perils ahead.
As we have mentioned ad nauseam throughout 2013, cost-conscious banks in Asia are trying to hire more locals and reduce their reliance on expensive expats. Singapore, meanwhile, is tightening its work-visa regulations for foreign professionals, especially junior ones.
With the cards already stacked against you as a foreign candidate, here's how to improve your chances of clinching a job in Hong Kong or Singapore.
“My number-one piece of advice for bankers wanting to move to Asia is to first explore all avenues to get an internal transfer with their current firm,” said Jack Bennett, managing director of Hong Kong headhunters Lionrock International. “Even if you don’t see your long-term future there, it’s still the easiest way to get that first move.”
Working for a small-fry firm in the West isn't generally appealing to banks in Asia. “Don't turn up in Asia without a big ticket CV – flagship projects, headline deals, major contracts and blue-chip clients,” warned Hong Kong-based management consultant Andrew Eagle. “You may get lucky and be interviewed by someone with an intricate knowledge of your home market, but chances are they won't appreciate the plays you've made in a niche market several thousand miles away”.
“The biggest mistake is that candidates who visit HK hardly ever bother to buy a local SIM card,” said Matthew Hoyle, director of headhunters Matthew Hoyle Financial Markets in Hong Kong. “When employers see an overseas phone number they are much less inclined to invite you for an interview,” he added. “Some people put a friend’s HK residential address on their CV; this can also help.”
Whinging about the West when you meet recruiters and banks in Asia isn’t advisable – it marks you out as an escapee whose motivations are purely negative. “Saying things like 'I’m sick of Europe' won’t cut it,” Hoyle said. “It’s not about why you want to move away, but about what you can do for your prospective employer.”
Foreign candidates who spend a significant amount of time in Asia are more likely to get a job than those who only jet in for the odd interview, according to Amanda Lote, managing director of Hong Kong search firm Lote & Partners. “This requires resources and commitment – repeated visits, an unpaid internship, or even up to three months’ pounding the streets to find work,” she added. “By thinking ‘I want to be in x location by x time doing x’, and working out a map to get there, you will increase your chances of success.”
“Foreign candidates need to be a lot more proactive and systematic in their search,” Lote said. “Build a spreadsheet with target employers and map your progress. Have coffee or lunch with everyone relevant in your contacts list. In challenging times, a network approach is as likely to result in success as passively waiting for headhunters to approach you.”
Never tell anyone, least of all recruiters and interviewers, that you are seeking some ubiquitous global experience. “Avoid giving the impression that you are not committed to Asia. Indicating that you are open to working anywhere in the world will not get you a job here,” said Kathy Togni, principal of search firm Togni & Zhao in Hong Kong.
“You need to demonstrate ties to the region,” Togni said. “Family ties are strongest, in the absence of which speaking an Asian language, having done Asia-focused work, or having spent time in Asia previously are all good.”
Recruiters and interviewers will ask about how the move fits in with your family and lifestyle. “If you don’t have a coherent answer, you’re application will likely fail,” said Mike Jones, a former ANZ executive who has worked across Asia and now runs Melbourne consultancy Connected Analytics. "Saying ‘it’ll be a laugh for a few years and I have mates who really enjoyed living in Singapore’ is not going to cut it.”
Banks in Asia only want to employ expats who can adapt to working in a different culture – that’s why they love asking about your “flexibility”, according to Jones. “Highlight where you have demonstrated flexibility. If you have adapted to challenging situations, personally or professionally, focus on these. If they involved travel or another culture, even better.”
Unless it’s very late in the interview process, you are strongly advised not to ask whether the company will help pay for your move to Asia. “The only people these days who get relocation packages are internal transferees; 95% of the time external hires don’t get them,” Hoyle said.
Budding expats are prone to wasting their time applying for irrelevant roles. “For example, some candidates ignore the fact that some job descriptions list Chinese language as an essential requirement,” said a Hong Kong headhunter who asked not to be named. “They wrongly believe their experiences in London, New York, Paris will compensate.”