To find out what you need to know if you want to work in Asia, we talked to Richard Farmer, director, professionals, Randstad.
Compared with a year ago, are you receiving more applications from candidates in the West (who don’t have Asian experience) for banking jobs in Hong Kong and Singapore?
Prior to the global financial crisis of 2008/2009, international banks that were building up their businesses in Asia were offering generous expat packages to lure American and European executives to work in Hong Kong and Singapore. Five years later, we are in a very different environment.
With continued economic instability in parts of Europe and the U.S., it’s the skilled professionals from these markets themselves who are looking to develop their careers in Asia’s financial hubs of Singapore and Hong Kong. Since 2009, our business has seen an increase in banking applications from [outside Asia], particularly at the mid-to-senior management level. Given the current market conditions, Asia is now seen as the safe place for banking professionals as they look for Asian business and product exposure.
Is it becoming more difficult for Westerners to find their first role in Hong Kong and Singapore?
In Hong Kong, language skills [both Mandarin and Cantonese] are becoming more important in banking due to ties with mainland China and the need to work effectively with a local customer base. This does make it more difficult for expatriates to land their first role in the market. However, given Singapore and Hong Kong’s low unemployment rates [2.1 and 3.4 percent respectively] and critical skills shortages, particularly in financial services, there are jobs available for candidates with the right skills and expertise.
At the same time, companies are looking to develop a strong leadership pipeline with local talent, which is lessening the demand for expatriates. Local talent has the natural advantage of existing relationships, language capabilities and regional knowledge, so expatriates need to be strategic in their choices of roles and demonstrate how they can adapt their international experience to benefit the local market.
In what job functions in Hong Kong and Singapore are they most likely to successfully find a role?
The functions with the greatest ability to transfer skills are in risk and compliance. This is due to the rise in global regulatory standards and a lack of skills to implement the undertaking. We have also seen roles in technology being transferred cross-border, with global project teams being moved to certain sites to implement systems, rather than going to market.
In what job functions will they struggle to find work?
Presently, clients are focused on finding local talent across all skill disciplines. Banking professionals with limited experience in their chosen field, or purely overseas experience, who are looking to move at the same level, might have to take a step back to enter. Those with a niche specialization – for example, superannuation, or something else that does not exist in the local market – will also have difficulty.
It’s becoming more important to have regional experience in Asia before making the shift. This provides a certain catch-22: How do you get experience in Asia, without having experience in Asia? This being the case, it’s often a good idea to transfer internally in your current company, and then after arriving in Asia, if you are not happy in that organization, make a move. Another good way to enter Hong Kong and Singapore is by going to a similar bank. For example, if you work for an American bank in the U.S., then look to work for another American bank in Asia.
Candidates must be flexible in terms of the role, package, title and company, looking at how they can maximize their skill and taking a long-term view when considering their options.
In general terms, when is the best time in your career to find your first role in Asia?
It’s difficult to put a specific time frame on this. It’s dependent on a number of factors: the individual’s experience, career aspirations and what the market is looking for. I do, however, believe candidates who have four to eight years of experience are in the best position to enter the market as they have had time to build a personal brand. They also possess skills and experience, and have the maturity to align with a new working cultural and business practices or processes.
The key to a career in Asia is commitment, flexibility and being open, in this geographically transient sector, to travel on a regular basis and to move countries. This will greatly enhance your ability to be a success.
What can first-time job seekers do to give themselves an edge over others in the same position?
Do their research on the local business environment, realistically looking at their resumes and the jobs available in the market, and making an effort to learn the local language and understand the cultural nuances. Networking is key for any person in a new environment. Join a business network, expat group or industry association, taking the opportunity to connect with locals as well as other expatriates who have been in the country for a longer period of time.
Any tips on interviewing with banks in Asia if you lack Asian experience?
When interviewing, the first rule is preparation. Research the market, the bank and the interviewers if possible. If you are interviewing by phone, remember to speak clearly and slowly. Discuss your work history, business strategy and the financial results of the bank, as this will build rapport and credibility.
Candidates should be clear going into any interview about how they can bring their own experience to benefit the local market. For instance, those that have worked in global banks might have been involved in projects or with new technology that is only been introduced in the Asian market now, so they can bring that experience to the local business.