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Balance of power swings towards Asia
Published on Friday, 14 Jan 2011
Photo: David Wong
Note: Industries with number of positions less than 100 in Q4 2010 are not considered in the ranking.

With optimistic growth forecasts and a steady return to pre-recession levels of hiring, Hong Kong employers and job-seekers can generally look forward to this year with confidence.

Yet, despite the positive signs and upbeat mood, they should avoid thinking it's "business as usual". After any global crisis, things simply don't revert in due course to the status quo. Economies rebalance, spheres of influence change and new patterns emerge, affecting trade, financial markets and everything tied to those two engines.

So, while businesses in Hong Kong will continue to depend on all the traditional factors - notably American policy and the strength of trade with overseas markets - this year is also likely to prove a real watershed. Key data reported worldwide clearly indicates that the downturn has served to accelerate the shifting dynamics of the global economy. The tilt towards Asia is there for all to see and, for companies everywhere, it is now a matter of how best to adapt to the realities of fundamental change.

Hong Kong should be able to maintain its role as an important international hub. But in all sectors, from hospitality to banking, education to logistics, most corporate plans centre squarely on mainland opportunities and ways to capitalise on either its domestic market, spending power or various investment needs.

That trend is already having a major impact on hiring, as seen in the results of the latest SCMP/admanGo survey, which summarises the number of job advertisements placed in Hong Kong's main recruitment publications.

Confirming a broad-based recovery, the figures show 143,944 new positions advertised last year, as against the 103,240 of 2009. Comparative fourth-quarter numbers showed a 28.2 per cent jump from 27,228 ads in 2009 to 34,899 last year and, allowing for slower activity before the Lunar New Year, the general upward curve is set to continue in the months ahead.

Significantly, but not surprisingly, the sectors showing the biggest job growth were those benefiting most directly from mainland money. Retail servicing, thanks to the influx of about 22 million mainland tourists, advertised 14,703 positions last year, up from 8,428 in 2009, while hotels and catering, for the same reason, surged from 7,081 vacancies in 2009 to 12,571 last year.

Other functions - including finance, sales, engineering and management - were similarly buoyant, with employers and recruitment firms again facing a shortage of candidates.

Forecasting local GDP growth of 4 to 5 per cent and inflation at 2 to 3 per cent for this year, David O'Rear, chief economist for the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, expects expansion, but warns that people should not get too carried away. "We had a trade crisis, not a financial crisis," he says. "But any future move towards protectionism or currency wars could still be a serious threat."

He points out that, with no real trade barriers in Hong Kong, there is a tendency to think you can't do much to influence international policy. However, he adds, this is a fallacy. "Companies that operate here have a tremendous amount of influence; they can make their voices heard and should use their clout," O'Rear says.

He also notes that, as things evolve, it would be a mistake for businesses to become over-reliant on the mainland and thus neglect opportunities elsewhere. Many in the finance sector, for example, seem to be pinning their hopes for this year on mainland-backed initial public offerings and yuan-denominated financial instruments. The risk lies in becoming too government-dependent and too narrow in outlook.

"Hong Kong has all the entrepreneurial instincts to take advantage of opportunities that arise from Beijing's industrial plan," O'Rear says. "But we should also be looking at other places for new business, so the entirety is not from China."

Describing local labour market conditions as generally robust, Donna Kwok, Greater China economist at HSBC, expects further job creation this year, led by the services sector, which she extends to finance, transport and logistics.

"Businesses are struggling to keep up with [hiring] demand and a tightening market is swinging in favour of workers, not employers," she says.

In this context, she notes that Hong Kong is moving closer to sustaining its own "virtuous cycle" of recovery, with more people in work boosting purchasing power per household. This, in turn, generates further consumer demand and sales.

Kwok's main concern is that loose monetary conditions in the United States, and any spillover effect on the mainland, could still derail progress.

"We see inflation as a sticky problem for policy makers," she says. "So far, wage levels have been rising along with employment. [But we need higher] domestic consumption feeding back into more positive labour market numbers."

Cliff Sun, chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, whose 3,000 or so corporate members already know the mainland's importance as a manufacturing base, says it will spur efforts to make the mainland a prime "export" market for Hong Kong-based firms.

He sees this as simply another step in the transformation of the manufacturing and allied industries, which have traditionally led the way in recognising and responding to changing economic circumstances.

"Overseas consumers are still cautious about spending money, so there is a reshuffling of the cards," Sun says. "China will continue to be the world's factory. With [international] sales sluggish, Hong Kong companies need to look at the mainland consumer market as the next focus."

This strategy, he believes, will help to preserve and create jobs. His personal concern, though, is that Hong Kong, from government level down, should still be doing more to boost its competitiveness. This is the best long-term guarantee of prosperity and job growth, he adds.

"Our government maintains a tone of minimum intervention, but it doesn't need so much in profits tax," Sun says. "That money could be used to encourage [research and development], design and innovation, which will also lead to more jobs."


Listings herald continuing demand

Accounting and finance

With more than 100 initial public offerings expected locally this year, Rosanna Choi, chairman of the Association of Certified Chartered Accountants Hong Kong, is perhaps understating the case when she rates the general outlook for the profession as quite promising.

Those listings, along with other audit, acquisition and compliance work, are certain to create continued demand for graduate trainees and experienced personnel.

"In addition, there will be many other business and capital transactions in China requiring accountants with the technical skills to value target companies, assess risks, dig out hidden liabilities and lay out plans for operating efficiency and effectiveness," Choi says.

She foresees continuing need for qualified professionals in the commercial sector, with financial controllers and internal auditors right up to the most senior roles.

As a direct result of the global crisis, she also notices a trend for more graduates to train first as accountants rather than aiming straight for investment or retail banking.

James Carss, executive general manager of Hudson Hong Kong, similarly expects a strong year for employment across the broader finance sector.

"This will lead to candidate shortages in niche areas such as risk, compliance and for revenue-generating sales staff with strong networks," he says.

He also predicts an increase in the use of social media by candidates and employers to explore opportunities and identify talent.


Demand for engineers to increase

Engineering

Last year saw a sharp rise in the number of engineering vacancies in Hong Kong and, with major infrastructure projects under way - such as the MTR extension, express rail and the cruise terminal - demand will increase.

"As these mega projects move from the design to the construction stage, contractors are under pressure to find engineers, technical staff and labour," says Reuben Chu, president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers. "In terms of finding work, we forecast another good year, but if you are recruiting, it can seem like musical chairs."

With requirements likely to peak around 2015, Chu is encouraged to see more students signing up for engineering degrees. It may take several years after graduation to obtain a full professional qualification but, along the way, they can contribute on site in many different capacities.

He says that big projects don't just call for civil, structural or geotechnical engineers. There are always roles for specialists in the mechanical, electrical and other disciplines.

"In the past few years, we have also expected engineers to know more about green materials and be more environmentally aware,"

Chu says. "This is pushed by the clients, but also gives new career options."


Fluctuating fortunes

Logistics

With potential growth in the logistics sector so dependent on trade volumes, forecasts are understandably cautious. After an exceptionally good first half of last year, the second six months provided a reminder that air and ocean freight demand from the main markets in Europe and North America is variable.

"In the past couple of years, business has been up and down quite a bit," says Paul Tsui, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Freight Forwarding and Logistics. "There is

a need for frontline, middle management and senior staff, but companies are looking for multiskilled employees who can work in different departments during peak periods."

The preferred skills tend to include detailed knowledge of security and compliance procedures, and an understanding of environmental impact. "For tenders, more and more big customers require the logistics service provider to do a carbon calculation for them and show where they can help reduce emissions and consumption," Tsui says.


Spending spree benefits all

Retail services and sales

The influx of mainland tourists and their willingness to spend have boosted the local retail sector, but the impact does not stop there. It feeds through to everything from manufacturing to fast-moving consumer goods, marketing and media.

"The luxury market was one of the strongest for jobs in retail last year," says Matthew Hill, managing director, Hong Kong, for recruitment firm Ambition.

"Mainlanders are driving it but, with salary increments and bonuses back on the agenda, companies on the retail side will continue to hire and grow."

He has seen the knock-on benefits, as employers add headcount in e-commerce, sales management, public relations and social media roles.

"Finding qualified candidates is one of the biggest challenges," Hill says. "Across all industries, employers will probably bring in more senior people from overseas and make a significant push to hire sales people from junior staff up to director level."

Ian Strutton, director of Manpower Professional Hong Kong, confirms that the characteristics of a market where demand outstrips supply are again evident. High performers can command a premium when moving jobs, in some cases negotiating salary increases well above 10 per cent.

"For the luxury retail market, we have been engaged on projects for `bulk' recruitment to fill key regional roles," he says. "And with many hotel groups committed to opening properties in China, Vietnam and India, we expect more sales [management] jobs in that area, too."

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