How bankers’ children are stopping bankers shifting to jobs in Hong Kong

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The children of senior bankers are hampering their parents’ plans to relocate to Hong Kong.

When global banks in Hong Kong want to hire or transfer overseas-based candidates who have children, a shortage of places in the territory’s private schools is increasingly thwarting the move, according to delegates at the recent eFinancialCareers roundtable discussion for senior HR professionals in Hong Kong.

“Not being able to get their kids into school now trumps pollution as the number-one reason why we can’t get people to work for us here,” said one of the roundtable attendees, all of whom asked not to be named in this report.

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While the Hong Kong banking sector’s reliance on foreign talent is in long-term decline, largely thanks to a growing need for Mandarin-language skills and Chinese market knowledge, banks still need to plug skill shortages with foreign candidates, especially in sought-after sectors like compliance and for senior management roles that don’t demand local expertise. International banks also routinely try to shift Singapore-based staff, who have already clocked up Asian experience, into Hong Kong to meet spikes in demand for their skills.

But, according to several roundtable delegates, more and more bankers are refusing to make such a move. “These days, with locals filling most junior roles, it’s mainly senior people we try to relocate. At that level they often have families and as a rule, their families would rather live in Singapore,” said a roundtable attendee from an investment bank. “It’s not just that apartments tend to be bigger over in Singapore and there’s less pollution – try finding a school place for two or three kids in Hong Kong. It’s a big problem; we are losing candidates purely because of schools,” he added.

While the high cost of living in Singapore is dissuading some Western-based candidates from moving there in the first place, those making a straight choice between it and Hong Kong are increasingly opting for Singapore. Internationals schools in the city state are expensive and in high-demand, but the shortage of places is not as acute as it is in Hong Kong. “Both are high-cost, low-tax cities, so they largely cancel each other out in terms of any financial advantage – that’s why factors like schools make such a huge difference,” bemoaned a delegate from another investment bank in Hong Kong.

Banking employees are competing for school places with staff from other sectors whose companies are expanding their headcounts in Hong Kong to tap the mainland China market. As demand for an English-language education rises, international schools in Hong Kong haven't been able to cope with a record number of applicants, according to a statement released earlier this month from research firm International School Consultancy Group. Global schools in Hong Kong will face a shortfall of 4,203 places for primary-level students alone in 2016-2017, according to Bloomberg.

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Lucrative expat benefits packages were consigned to history in 2008 after the financial crisis, so banks in Hong Kong no longer fund “debentures” – down-payments that secure school places. “My message to candidates is that they must now realise that we can’t open doors into schools for them,” said an HR professional from a regional corporate bank who attended the roundtable.

She added that hiring managers at her firm have become reluctant to mention schooling during job interviews with overseas-based bankers lest this prematurely ends their candidacy. “But in HR we ask about their kids’ needs at the start to avoid the trouble of an offer falling through at the last minute.”

A European bank in Hong Kong is offering beleaguered parents a ray of hope. “Because of the delays in people getting their kids into schools here, we now allow more time – usually six to nine months – for an internal transfer into Hong Kong to take place,” said a representative from the bank at the roundtable.