Banks in Hong Kong and Singapore are becoming more open to hiring liberal arts students and graduates, using their internship and traineeship programmes to equip them with financial know-how.
Until recently banks in the two Asian cities turned up their noses at students who weren’t armed with degrees in finance, maths, business and other quantitative subjects – so much so that it’s hard to find many employees with arts degrees within their middle and senior ranks. Now talent shortages necessitate widening the talent pool.
“The number of experienced candidates we see with a liberal arts backgrounds in Hong Kong is small enough to count on one hand, mainly because of cultural factors,” says Rouella Landicho, a manager at recruitment agency Morgan McKinley in Hong Kong. “Parents here typically encourage their children towards quantitative degrees offering stable careers. And compared to the West, the job market in Hong Kong has been less receptive to candidates with non-traditional backgrounds, often pairing apples with apples.”
In Singapore, banks traditionally prioritised the type of degree you had over the university you attended, says Christine Wright, managing director of recruiters Hays in Asia. “By contrast, in the UK, a bank would be more willing to take an arts student from Oxford or Cambridge rather than a maths grad from a lower-tier university.” Wright says there’s a higher proportion of experienced banking candidates with numerical-based degrees in Asia than there is in Western markets. “People here tend to think these degrees provide them with an easier route into the workforce.”
A changing attitude towards arts graduates in Asia
While it’s undoubtedly still true that completing a liberal arts major isn’t the most straight forward way to clinch a graduate banking job in Asia, large firms in the region are now becoming more receptive to arts grads joining their ranks.
This year Deutsche Bank is hosting several careers events at campuses in Asia which target non-banking and finance students, says Sze Ming Ho, a VP in Apac graduate recruitment at Deutsche in Singapore. “Successful candidates now come from a wide range of degree disciplines – we don’t just recruit finance, economics or business students.”
Arts graduates now make up 30% of the 2015 management associate cohort at DBS in Singapore, says Debbie Chan, a VP in campus strategy and graduate recruitment at the bank. And having some arty types in their midst also benefits the number-crunchers in the remaining 70%. “Diversity of experience and academic training enriches the programme as a whole,” says Chan.
Standard Chartered’s current graduate intake includes people with degrees in art, history, politics, languages and philosophy, says Singapore-based Lara Partridge, the firm’s head of graduate talent. “We actively seek to hire all degree types everywhere we hire graduates – the more diverse the mix of backgrounds and experience in our graduate talent pool, the better,” she adds.
While arts student are unlikely to end up in roles requiring high-level knowledge of maths or IT (don’t bet on a career in fintech or quantitative analytics), banks’ training programmes provide both core banking skills and an insight into different sectors as graduates rotate between departments. This is enough to equip them for most careers in banking, say graduate recruiters in Asia.
Why are banks in Hong Kong and Singapore now bothering to train up people whose degree choice did nothing to indicate an interest in finance? Widening the graduate candidate pool means they can try to tackle emerging talent shortages in the region, particularly for relationship management and sales roles. And it allows them to fill their junior ranks with more local candidates as they face pressure to reduce their recruitment of Western expatriates.
Recruiters also say arts graduates tend to perform certain tasks better than their finance counterparts. “Their broad curriculum trains arts students to think critically and creatively and to communicate effectively and persuasively. They also interact and relate well with a cross section of people,” says Chan from DBS. Ho from Deutsche in Singapore adds: “A client-facing role would, for example, require strongly-honed relationship and communication skills, while other business areas may focus on capabilities in problem-solving, strategic thinking and analysis. We certainly don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to who we look for.”