Asia's rocket-paced accumulation of wealth and the demand for financial services make banking and finance one of the most diverse and opportunity-driven career sectors across the region. However, gaining a foothold in a competitive recruitment market can be a challenge without preparation and a suitable qualification.
An April 11 forum, entitled "How Fresh Graduates Win a Job Offer in the Financial Industry", focused on the sector's outlook, qualifications needed to succeed in various disciplines and what qualities employers are looking for. The forum was organised by Kornerstone, with fuel as exclusive media partner.
Forum presenters were Jimmy Lee, associate director of Centaline Wealth Management, Jack Tsang, president of the Hong Kong chapter of the International Academy of Financial Management, and Kingston Ho, senior risk manager at an international investment bank. They provided more than 130 participants with a wealth of insights.
As the sector becomes increasingly international, Tsang says recruits should prepare for frequent travel and job rotation.
"Those fresh to the industry need to work hard to develop new skills, show versatility and apply an international approach to their careers as they will be required to work with colleagues from different countries," he says. "Employers in all areas of the banking and finance sector are looking for professional qualifications, a positive and mature mindset, excellent communication skills, international perspectives and adaptability."
Tsang says job-seekers should lower their initial salary expectations and consider joining less competitive segments of the financial sector. Employment prospects can be boosted by undertaking volunteer work and involvement in social activities, which can indicate to an employer that the candidate can operate as a team player and has a broad outlook on life.
As a rule, professional qualifications that include practical knowledge are more important than a high grade point average or a master's degree. "The most helpful qualifications are those that are most relevant to your desired profession and the wider area the candidate would like to work in," Tsang says.
During the forum, participants were invited to fill in a questionnaire outlining the qualification they would like to pursue after gaining a first degree. From the 135 responses, 54 revealed they would choose to pursue a chartered financial analyst qualification, while 37 opted for an MBA. The other selections were financial risk manager (26), master of finance (15) and chartered wealth manager (3).
During breakout sessions, groups were able to talk to panellists directly to ask for their advice about study plans and career development.
Ho says he was impressed by participants who showed an eagerness to connect to the industry but was concerned they might be placing too much emphasis on the qualifications they need.
"There is a bit of a tendency for fresh graduates to bow to peer pressure by pursuing qualifications that might not be relevant to the area of finance they want to work in," he says.
As an employer, Ho would be more impressed by a candidate looking to gain on-the-job experience than someone who has spent time studying for a master's degree that is not applicable to the job and has lost a year of valuable work experience.
He says many fresh graduates looking to join the finance industry need to look at the skill sets they offer from an employer's perspective. They need to ask themselves: "Do I have the skill sets an employer needs? Do I have enough soft skills, including communication and flexibility to complement my hard skills?"
Ho says theoretical knowledge gained from academic qualifications need to translate into practical use in the work environment. Employers want to know if the person they are hiring can handle a difficult situation. For instance, if it is a problem they have not encountered, can they put together a simple action plan? Do they have the confidence and ability to communicate with colleagues to seek advice and formulate a solution?
Ho believes applicants may need to modify salary expectations and their image of themselves. "If they value themselves too highly, they can easily erode their competitiveness in the market," he says.
He suggests they would do well to use the iPhone user experience analogy. "It is all about the user experience: if an iPhone fails to meet a user's expectations, then the user will look elsewhere. It is the same with employers - they look for the best people to fit in and contribute to their organisation," says Ho, a certified public accountant who holds a master's degree in corporate and financial law.
"There are many worthwhile career opportunities in the world of finance. However, job-seekers need to align their qualifications to the area they want to work in and formulate a realistic picture of what they can offer to employers," says Ho.