The Asia hiring party is over as Mandarin becomes a must

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Asia remains alluring to Western bankers – just ask any recruiter in Singapore or Hong Kong about the reams of resumes they are receiving from would-be expats.

But while banks in the region are still hiring some foreign candidates, they are increasingly looking for people with local skills. Hong Kong employers, in particular, are clamouring for Mandarin speakers with clients on the mainland.

At eFinancialCareers roundtables in Singapore and Hong Kong last month, HR representatives from leading international banks said that headcounts likely will remain flat in 2013, barring unexpected global growth. This is good news if you’re already in Asia as layoffs should taper off, but unwelcome news to those looking to embark on a career in the region.

Maturing markets

The job markets in Singapore and Hong Kong are beginning to resemble those in the West with long job-approval times and worries about the economic stability of employers. The two financial centres have grown up and are increasingly employing locals rather than parachuting in expats to develop the market.

This change is especially marked in Singapore. “As the economy progresses in tandem with greater wealth growth in the Southeast Asian region, the financial sector here is evolving into a higher-value, higher-cost environment,” says Mark Billington, Southeast Asia regional director for ICAEW, a professional body for chartered accountants. “There will be little growth in general within financial service in Singapore as the market is now mature, with limited onshoring or new big projects being kicked off any time soon,” says Kyle Blockley, director, KS Consulting, Singapore.

Local lessons

Banks want local experience for the roles that are available. “Putting aside the technical skills required for each specific role, firms continue to look for talent that is equipped with strong emotional intelligence and relevant Asia language skills,” says Michelle Martin, head of Asia Pacific graduate recruitment, J.P. Morgan. Corporate-banking relationship managers needed in Hong Kong must “bring Chinese relationships and language skills,” says Kate Harper, director, banking and financial services, Connected Group, Hong Kong.

Bankers who don’t speak Mandarin are now finding it increasingly difficult to get shortlisted for jobs in Hong Kong, says Mark O’Reilly, managing director, Astbury Marsden, Hong Kong. “There are still plenty of jobs in Hong Kong where you just deal with other English speakers, but with the growth of Chinese banks, insurers and other corporates, those jobs are a shrinking proportion of the pie,” says O’Reilly.

While about 40 percent of the recruiter’s roles demanded Mandarin in 2012, that percentage will increase in 2013, he says. M&A, management consultancy (dealing with Chinese clients), private banking, corporate finance, and credit risk are the sectors where the language is most useful.

Even in risk and compliance – two job functions recruiters say will grow in 2013  – knowledge of local as well as international regulations is essential to most positions. Gary Lai, managing director, Southeast Asia, Charterhouse Partnership, Singapore, says he expects banks to ramp up their risk and compliance headcounts between 8 and 15 percent in Singapore over the next year to deal with Basel III and domestic reforms.

Foreign dilemmas

The emphasis on local recruitment means firms have even tougher requirements when hiring from overseas in order to justify the increased expense and risk of relocation, according to roundtable delegates in Singapore and Hong Kong. Successful foreign candidates are typically either senior leaders who don’t have regular client contact with Mandarin speakers, or those with both sought-after and internationally transferable skills in jobs like IT or product control.

Talent localisation is a long-term trend, and despite the current dearth of vacancies, experts say the region’s financial workforce will ultimately enjoy more opportunities. In Singapore, for example, the ICAEW predicts that jobs will grow by 100,000 between 2007 and 2017, lead by sectors such as corporate banking, IT, fixed income, currencies and commodities trading, wealth management, risk management and compliance.

“The natural shift from west to east is accelerated by the financial crisis as well as increased regulations and taxations in Western economies,” says Billington from the ICAEW. “Singapore should benefit from light-touch regulation, extensive commercial opportunities from regional growth, fast-rising demand for wealth management services in Asia, and also from low taxation and a large local talent pool.”