Hong Kong continues to be a bridge between East and West. Even in the face of intense competition from the mainland, the city's role as a merchandising hub is firmly established and it remains a preferred location for multinational companies to set up their buying offices, creating ample opportunities for jobseekers.
The merchandising industry in Hong Kong is booming, says Maude Lam, business manager, Alpha Omega Personnel Services Ltd. "A decade or so ago, some foreign enterprises started establishing their sourcing and purchasing offices in mainland China as the overheads and labour costs across the border were cheaper than in Hong Kong. But after a few years, they realised that Hong Kong was still a better choice in many respects," Ms Lam says, adding that the city still has a competitive edge.
"From a personnel consultant's point of view, Hong Kong people are fast and adaptable. We can think flexibly, evaluate things from different angles and are more attuned to international practices, which are essential when you have to deal with clients from all over the world, as in merchandising. These are vital for sound business judgements."
Many foreign companies have established buying offices in Hong Kong to take advantage of the local talent pool, as well as of Hong Kong's unique geographical location, Ms Lam points out. "Many of the openings are on managerial level, such as positions for general managers, logistics planning managers and merchandisers. And there are particularly good prospects for people specialised in the manufacturing and merchandising of luxury goods."
Ms Lam says companies often prefer to maintain a Hong Kong-based management core to look after their businesses in the East. "Geographically, Hong Kong can be viewed as a gateway to the whole of Asia. An office in China allows the parent company to access Chinese vendors only, but if the office is situated in Hong Kong, the parent company can reach out to vendors across Asia, including emerging markets such as Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, which opens up a wider range of sourcing and purchasing solutions."
Although the market is prospering, Ms Lam notes, "Merchandising is a demanding job and candidates must possess both hard and soft skills. Capable merchandisers must have a reasonable understanding of production processes, as they have to communicate information between manufacturers, who are bound by an array of technical constraints, and overseas importers, who may have little or no knowledge of how things are done in the factory. A qualified merchandiser is a facilitator in the supply chain, so the role is significant and this explains why salaries are going up. By employing the right person an employer adds real value to the company."
Manufacturing costs in China's southern cities such as Shenzhen and Dongguan are steadily rising. This, coupled with a labour shortage and tightened regulations, have prompted many manufacturers of products with low profit margins to move to cities farther north.
Distance does not seem to be a hurdle when it comes to employing talent from Hong Kong. "Today's young people are quite willing to work on the mainland if the remuneration package and career development opportunities are attractive enough. Many employers now expect Hong Kong-based staff to stay in China for longer periods at a time. In the past, it was about one to three days a week, but now it is three to five days a week," Ms Lam notes.
She advises Hong Kong employees in their twenties not to jump around in their careers, saying, "You need fundamental knowledge to succeed, so I encourage young people to acquire in-depth understanding of a particular job before they consider changing. Employees with seven to 15 years of experience in a specialised industry are the most sought after. Language and problem-solving skills and perseverance are highly valued. Young people should have a long-term vision instead of just looking at instant returns."
Considering recent rapid changes in the business environment, Ms Lam notes that small- to medium- enterprises (SMEs) face more challenges than larger companies. "Many SMEs find it difficult to recruit Hong Kong people to work for them on the mainland. This is mostly because they do not have as many resources for recruiting and retaining talent as large enterprises. Foreigners working in China, including Hong Kong people, have to pay a much higher rate of income tax on the mainland than in Hong Kong. Large enterprises can absorb the difference in tax payable in order to attract Hong Kong talent to work for them on the mainland, but SMEs may not be able to do so," Ms Lam remarks.
Looking to the future, Ms Lam believes Hong Kong people will continue to enjoy a competitive edge when it comes to management. "Hong Kong people are more strategic thinkers and experienced in doing international business. With the mass global market and competitors from the rest of Asia becoming more competitive, Hong Kong's youth should prepare themselves to meet the challenges," she stresses.