Financial Planning / Wealth Management

Moving against the stream

by Howard Ho

Nicholas Neal
managing director
Optimum Hong Kong Limited
Photo: Lewis Wong

Finance jobs may be hard to come by in the current climate, but there are still opportunities for candidates with the right credentials and attitude

As major global finance houses continue to announce layoffs, there seems to be little light at the end of the tunnel for economies worldwide.

"With sustained global instability, we'll have to wait until share markets in the US bottom out before the world economy can start to get back on track," says Nicholas Neal, managing director, Optimum Hong Kong Limited. The firm, under the umbrella of the International Recruitment Investments group (IRI), specialises in recruitment for the banking and commerce finance sectors.

Since companies are struggling to make long-term plans, they are understandably uncertain about their future business prospects, Mr Neal notes. "Forecasts are now done on a weekly basis," he adds.

Before layoffs started, most US banks were about 20 per cent overstaffed due to the extraordinary growth between 2004 and 2008, says Mr Neal. The downturn therefore prompted an across-the-board "rightsizing" effort.

"In recessions, banks will first cut their senior staff, for example, their vice presidents and directors," he says. "In times like these, senior management tends to be under a lot of scrutiny."

Once business volumes begin to recover, there will be an increased need for staff, but recruitment will perhaps take place at a slightly more conservative pace. Nonetheless, Mr Neal expects "a flurry of campus recruitment activity" as companies vie for young and cost effective talent once markets start to recover.

Silver lining

The recruitment markets in Shanghai and Beijing may currently be experiencing a relatively more positive trajectory than that of Hong Kong, but only marginally so, Mr Neal points out. Recruitment is still at an absolute minimum.

However, Shanghai in particular has grown dramatically over the past two decades and the city is now in a position to compete with Hong Kong as a key Asian financial centre, he says, advising jobseekers that now is the time to polish their Mandarin skills.

Certain jobs are still in demand, despite the tough times. "Businesses are hiring people for sales or revenue related roles," Mr Neal says. "If you're an accountant, your expertise will still be needed for business support roles."

Contract positions can be a solution, although this form of employment is still underdeveloped in Asia. Even so, people are becoming more receptive to the idea of contract work, since there are fewer full-time opportunities available.

As contract employees are considered "invisible headcount", this means companies can log their costs differently, not affecting any mandatory headcount policies. Firms tend to hire contract employees for the projected duration of the downturn, hoping to make their positions permanent once the economy recovers.

Right attributes

In addition to the crucial hard skills learnt at university and on the job, jobseekers today must also demonstrate the right soft skills, Mr Neal stresses. These include the ability to adapt to a changing environment, the discipline to assimilate into different roles, and strong interpersonal skills.

New graduates seeking employment must be proactive, Mr Neal says. "Find a company that you want to work for, do your research and make a direct approach."

Graduates should also formulate contingency plans to cope with the waning employment market, says Mr Neal, for instance, by furthering their studies and strengthening their knowledge of a field they are interested in.

He cautions employees who are considering changing jobs, saying, "This market is about job security and not job seeking. Employees frustrated with their current roles should work harder to distinguish themselves as high achievers so that when the market turns, they will stand out as even stronger candidates."

Perhaps few recruitment firms are as acutely aware of the implications of the downturn as Optimum. Having identified a need for a more service-oriented and tailored approach to recruiting, Mr Neal founded the firm in March 2008.

As a new player in the market, he began by placing accountants in back- and middle-office functions at investment banks and other Fortune 500 companies.

Optimum, with offices in Hong Kong and Singapore, not only places candidates but also ensures that they successfully navigate their new work places.

"A new boss and new work culture can be daunting, so we help candidates out and provide transition support. This helps them perform better and learn at a much quicker pace," Mr Neal says.


Taken from Career Times 08 May 2009, p. A8
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