From toys and toothbrushes to clothes and shoes, a large percentage of the consumer goods people use on a daily basis bears the "Made in China" label. Hong Kong plays a crucial role as middleman to coordinate the delivery of these products from the mainland China factory production lines to stores and homes around the world.
More than half the jobs advertised in Hong Kong are for positions in the manufacturing sector, while only a third are banking-related, says Edmond So, general manager, Besteam Personnel Consultancy Limited. "There is a mounting demand for merchandisers."
As a link between international buyers and mainland suppliers, a merchandiser's role is multi-faceted and therefore rewarding. The job includes everything from sourcing raw materials to the successful delivery of the product into the hands of the buyer. This creates a whole world of career possibilities for competent and well-rounded merchandisers.
"Merchandisers gain a lot of hands-on experience in various aspects of the export sector. Over time, they also build up valuable relationships with buyers and suppliers," Mr So says. Armed with solid knowledge and the right business connections, many seasoned merchandisers eventually find themselves in an advantageous position and start their own trading companies. He adds, "The field offers excellent career and entrepreneurial prospects. This is particularly true about the garment industry."
However, the hectic world of merchandising is not for everyone, Mr So concedes. Candidates must possess good language skills, be prepared for long hours of work that correspond with the different time zones of international buyers and be willing to travel regularly across the border.
"It is common for merchandisers to work way into the evening," Mr So says. "Sometimes the work day might even stretch to midnight, in order for the merchandiser to touch base with overseas buyers."
A growing number of manufacturing companies are starting to base their staff on the mainland. "For Hong Kong-based merchandisers, frequent travel to mainland China is now part of the job," stresses Mr So. "However, this is an interesting profession that gives you a lot of insight into market trends around the world."
The sluggish US economy has affected Hong Kong exporters. The lull has had a negative impact on Hong Kong's export sector, Mr So points out. As a consequence, hiring in the sector has slowed by 10 to 15 per cent this year.
"Hiring has slowed down in the past couple of months and manufacturers are currently recruiting only to replace lost personnel, rather than creating new positions," he says. The sector expects a further slowdown in the coming quarters as dwindling orders from the US start taking their toll. In spite of these challenges, Mr So is confident that the situation will return to normal within a year or two.
A steep hike in the cost of raw materials coupled with more stringent labour laws have contributed to tougher conditions for manufacturers. The challenging business environment in Guangdong province has already led to some factories moving their operations to countries such as Vietnam, where labour costs are lower.
While manufacturers are starting to look for more opportunities in southern Asia, Mr So is confident that China's status as the world's factory will remain unchanged in the foreseeable future. "China is such a big country and there is a lot of room for growth in its northern regions," he adds.
Considering the myriad factories on the mainland, it is inevitable for employers to lean towards localising their workforce in order to lower operational costs. To remain competitive, Hong Kong talent must therefore focus on providing value-added services, advises Mr So.
However, Hong Kong manufacturers still have an edge when it comes to language skills and a greater awareness of changing market trends. "Also, Hong Kong manufacturers are internationally renowned for their trustworthiness," he explains.
Mr So advises prospective entrants into the merchandising field to remain alert to current market trends. Importantly, they should continuously hone their language skills. "To be a successful merchandiser dealing with both buyers and suppliers, you must be able to communicate fluently in English and Mandarin."