The turnaround from recession to recovery is perhaps cause for celebration, but Hong Kong businesses hit hard by the downturn know better than to get too carried away by the first signs of revival. They can see there is still a long climb ahead to recapture the good times and confidence of late 2007, and realise it will involve more corporate reorganisation and restructuring.
In the short term there are many reasons to be positive. Every major sector is now talking optimistically about prospects for the rest of the year and planning for expansion, better revenues, and the creation of new jobs.
Indeed, the SCMP/admanGo report, which tracks job vacancies advertised in the seven recruitment publications in Hong Kong, already reflects a solid increase in hiring. It shows 33,430 positions on offer in the first quarter, marking a 22.8 per cent increase from the 27,228 vacancies of last year's final quarter. This also represents a jump of 42 per cent from the 23,508 jobs advertised in the first three months of last year. This is still a long way behind the 76,111 positions advertised in the first quarter of 2008.
For Stanley Lau Chin-ho, deputy chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, a key source of encouragement is the continuing rise in export figures. With an estimated two-thirds of the local economy built on trade and manufacturing activity, this is always one of the most valuable measures of relative strength and progress.
What Lau sees is that sectors such as garments, electronics, toys and watches are all receiving positive feedback from overseas markets and recording a steady pick-up in orders.
"This shows that buyers are coming back," Lau says. "Based on the response from customers and the number of orders for different industries, we are quite optimistic and predict the situation will be even better in the second half of the year." He says local companies need to take advantage of the mainland's domestic market and develop strategies, sales networks and brands to do it properly.
"I think everyone agrees China is one of the markets with the most potential," Lau says. "But the way to develop a presence and sell your products is totally different from exporting to the US or European markets. It takes time and a lot of money, so Hong Kong companies should be ready to [allocate] resources or set aside a certain percentage of their profits to make that adjustment."
With the mainland minimum wage set to increase next month by an average of 21 per cent, companies can no longer view it as the obvious place for "cheap" labour-intensive production. Across the border, there is a concerted move towards higher-end industries, so Hong Kong enterprises have to react and upgrade accordingly, Lau says.
"The most appropriate solution is for companies to transform from purely OEM [original equipment manufacturer] to more value-added production," Lau says. "Costs and the shortage of [factory] labour are becoming major concerns because the younger generation in China now prefer to work in the professional and service sectors. That problem will not be solved in the next one to two years."
Focusing more on the recovery's effect on the job market, Matthew Bennett, managing director for executive search firm Robert Walters, sees a similar mix of positives and looming challenges. He says it is "amazing" how quickly general sentiment has turned around, with employers hiring quite aggressively across all sectors.
Leading the way are financial services that had been "on the boil" since last September. Initially, the priority had been to fill revenue-generating positions, but there is now also demand for new staff in back-office and infrastructure roles in investment and private banks, hedge funds and insurance companies.
"In the financial services space, there wouldn't be anyone not hiring," Bennett says. "Everyone is moving forward cautiously, but overall we are still living in a pretty unstable market. Managers want to make sure they are hiring the right people, so the hiring cycle is taking about eight to 10 weeks."
Ian Strutton, director of recruitment firm Manpower Professional, has also seen a steady pick-up. This was first visible in areas such as wealth management and corporate banking, but is now evident in everything from hospitality and engineering to logistics, information technology and digital media. "We are not in a boom market but are getting back to pre-recession levels."