Hong Kong's garment industry has been among the most important contributors to the local economy since the 1960s. In the past decade the business model has moved from "made in Hong Kong" to "made by Hong Kong". And local enterprises are now coordinating an extensive network of design-conscious and customer-oriented activities in the Pearl River Delta and beyond.
As the industry continues to evolve, skills required of the workforce also change. Moving up the value chain increases demand for a higher level of soft skills in addition to technical knowledge. "Merchandising is the coordination work involved in any supply chain of tangible goods, without which ideas cannot be turned into commodities and introduced to the market, so there is always a demand for merchandisers," says Jacky Ng, account manager at Red Personnel Limited, a company that specialises in recruiting merchandising professionals. "In recent years, the demand for merchandisers has been soaring, especially in the garment field, as Hong Kong's role as the prime sourcing centre for fashion has been consolidated."
Hong Kong's advantages in garment merchandising are multifaceted. First, its close proximity to mainland China, where many of the world's factories are located, is beneficial for managing production activities. Next, Hong Kong's garment industry has a solid history. "Garment companies in Hong Kong are experienced at everything. Whether it's fabric procurement or sales and marketing, they can do it all and that is extremely attractive to clients. They are professional and flexible, attributes hard to find anywhere else in the world. Many overseas companies turn to Hong Kong to help them stay on top in the world fashion scene," Mr Ng says.
Moreover, Hong Kong companies have credibility in areas such as quality control and the city is renowned for its trade financing and logistic arrangements.
Hong Kong is a preferred location for multinational companies' regional headquarters or representative offices which oversee their businesses in Asia Pacific. A recent government survey found that there are 3,890 regional headquarters and offices in Hong Kong representing overseas parent companies, a 25 per cent increase from five years ago. "Only recently, a well-known multinational fashion retailer relocated its regional headquarters from Singapore to Hong Kong to capitalise on our advantages such as proximity to China, and nearly every famous apparel retailer has set up a buying office here," Mr Ng says.
According to Mr Ng, employers are looking for talents with all-round skills. "Garment merchandisers today do not just follow up orders. They provide ideas to clients in the areas of costing and feasibility. They need good communication skills, fashion design knowledge and even business sense."
With demand soaring, companies are finding it more difficult to recruit merchandising talent. "Salaries have been rising by 10 to 15 per cent in recent years," Mr Ng remarks.
Companies are also improving other aspects of their employment packages. "Employer branding is now a widely accepted concept. Staff are a key driver of success, especially in the garment industry, which is labour intensive and detail-oriented. Most companies want to project an image that their organisation is a great place to work," Mr Ng says, adding that offering share options to employees, with a view to enhancing a sense of belonging and work performance, is becoming common practice.
While experienced merchandisers are the most sought-after, fresh graduates are also welcome. "There are some golden opportunities in garment merchandising these days," Mr Ng says. "Those with a degree in a relevant discipline are in a more advantageous position, but graduates from other disciplines can also make it as long as they are willing to learn."
Learning plays a big part in promotions and benefits because the industry changes rapidly and people are required to react quickly. Mr Ng advises that merchandisers find an area they are interested in and stick with it. "Those with experience are obviously at an advantage but they should be aware that it is better to stay in the same field. For example, if they are now in men's wear they should be looking for another position in men's wear because specialisation is highly valued in garment merchandising. There are just so many aspects to the different areas that it really requires someone who knows what they are talking about."