Survey says it's hard to find financial services staff

A June survey says that Hong Kong's finance and accounting sector is challenged to find skilled candidates — but given all the turmoil since June, is it still true?

Government policy often appears to be shaped by surveys — politicians won’t so much as sneeze without polling their constituents to find out if the timing is right, the trajectory acceptable and checking to see if it will yield a sensitive, “Gazunteit!”

But polls need to be interpreted carefully. Yesterday Robert Half International released a poll stating that 93% of Hong Kong employers surveyed cannot find skilled finance professionals in the current market. It went on to say that one of the “ways companies in Hong Kong are coping with the talent shortage include turning to recruitment firms (37%)”.

That’s convenient given that Robert Half International is a specialised financial recruitment firm. The poll was conducted in June by Robert Half in conjunction with an independent research organisation, and it captured the views of 3,542 human resources, finance and accounting professionals in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. A total of 645 respondents, including 303 financial hiring managers, were surveyed in Hong Kong.

No doubt, those firms in June were looking to hire. And they might still be. Or they might have looked around, after hearing that HSBC was laying off 30,000 financial specialists during the next two years, and thought: Maybe it’s not that hard to find people now. Or they might have thought: Hang on, do we really want to hire in light of the US downgrade and Europe’s domino debt problem and slowing manufacturing output in China?

Or, they might be looking to expand in a downturn. According to this survey, at least in June, 30% of Hong Kong employers were looking to increase full-time staff in finance, accounting or banking in the second half of 2011. And a majority, 90%, of employers in Asia-Pacific were struggling to find skilled finance professionals. Hong Kong and Singapore were finding it the hardest in the region with 93% and 97% of employers respectively claiming that it is challenging to find skilled finance professionals.

The main reasons cited by Hong Kong employers for increasing staff were to fuel business expansion (56%) and ease the workload of existing staff (53%).

Hong Kong employers said they were having the most difficulty finding skilled professionals in the areas of finance (30%) and compliance (24%), up 11% and 8% respectively year on year. To help address these talent shortages, Hong Kong hiring managers said they are trying to build the skill sets within their own team (48%) and promoting from within (47%).

“A focus on staff training and development not only allows companies to build the skill sets of their current teams but also may improve retention rates, since employees appreciate the opportunity to acquire new skills and take on different challenges,” said Pallavi Anand, director of Robert Half Hong Kong.

Other ways companies in Hong Kong were coping with the talent shortage include, as mentioned earlier, turning to recruitment firms (37%), increasing financial incentives, like salaries and bonuses (35%), and offering staff incentives for recommendations and referrals (30%) to attract and retain the best talent.

The survey also revealed that the majority (88%) of Hong Kong employers were concerned about losing top financial performers to other job opportunities in the next year. This is well above the regional average of 76% according to the survey.

“Employers’ fear of losing top performers is a valid one, as 45% of finance professionals surveyed in Hong Kong admitted that they plan to seek employment or a promotion with a new company in the next two years,” said Anand.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out, because the problem with surveys is that they often end up looking at yesterday to predict tomorrow.

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