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Patchy job market amid trade slowdown
John Cremer
update on Saturday, October 23, 2010
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Record-high property prices and stronger market indices appear to suggest Hong Kong's economy is once again on a roll, but figures show some sectors are still not buoyant.

The SCMP/admanGo market report of jobs advertised in local recruitment publications shows a decline of 1.4 per cent from 38,063 openings for the second quarter to 37,548 vacancies in the third quarter. There are broad positives if one considers a year-on-year 32.2 per cent increase from the 28,410 positions advertised in last year's third quarter, but no one needs reminding how low a base 2009 offers as a point of comparison.

Respective figures for the third quarters of 2007 and 2008 were 81,972 and 65,933 and it's notable that traditional hiring patterns see the July-September period surpassing that of the previous three months.

Sector by sector, highlights certainly exist. Retail servicing continues to add jobs, buoyed by the influx of high-spending mainland tourists. The last quarter saw 3,765 posts advertised in education and training, linked in part to the transition to the restructured curriculum in 2012. And new positions are still being created in the hotel, health care, construction and finance sectors.

But what remains a concern is that the robust growth of this year's first half is tailing off and uncertainties in the external economy may slow general recruitment.

"If talking about the macroenvironment, the growth momentum will ease," says Irina Fan, senior economist at Hang Seng Bank. "Labour statistics have been quite good for the last few months, but we must be aware this is a lagging indicator." Fan expects Hong Kong's GDP growth to slide to 2 per cent in the final quarter from 7 per cent plus in the first half. She also points out that while many sectors were able to create jobs after the financial crisis with the help of government incentives, the export-dependent trade sector has lost about 42,000 positions since then.

Amid the talk of recovery, people lose sight of the fact that trade and logistics still account for 23 to 25 per cent of employment in Hong Kong. Inflows of investment capital, tourist dollars, and large-scale infrastructure projects can all have a positive impact on jobs. But with the trade sector still "under water", according to Fan, a full-scale return to pre-crisis levels of confidence and recruitment is some way off.

"We don't see much hope of trade-related [expansion] before the second half of next year," she says. "If business is not expanding, employers will be very cautious and will think twice before making any hiring decisions."

Dr Paul Tsui, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Freight Forwarding and Logistics, confirms that air and ocean carriers also anticipate a slowdown in the fourth quarter and beyond.

Replenishment of stocks by overseas buyers kept trade volumes strong for most of the year, but that exercise has now run its course. Shipments are returning to what Tsui describes as more normal, seasonal patterns, with the result that capacity may be withdrawn and services reconfigured.

"If carriers expected a peak to last up to November, then they will have some problems," he says. "[Freight] rates are stable right now, but if the situation doesn't improve in the next month or so, they might start to come down."

He emphasises that even with factory production migrating from Shenzhen to areas further north, Hong Kong maintains its role as a key logistics hub, particularly for air cargo. The industry has been adding headcount this year and should continue to do so. Many employers now face a problem in finding experienced candidates with a good knowledge of the security and environmental issues that customers see as increasingly important.

"The hiring of quality people in Hong Kong is a major issue," Tsui says. "Logistics is a very challenging industry and it is not easy to find them."

Gina McLellan, director, Asia, at executive search firm Talent2, says other sectors echo those views. While sentiment is positive, firms are keen to minimise risk when hiring, which translates into demanding job descriptions and a limited talent pool. "There are plenty of people in the market, but employers are looking for very specific skill sets and capabilities.

"When we talk about a lack of supply, it is from a quality, rather than a volume, perspective." She adds that banking and finance has seen strong hiring recently, but there is no room for complacency. "Investment banks will continue to cut the bottom 10 per cent of performers, as we move into year-end bonus season." 

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