Hong Kong employers see silver lining to downturn

26 May 2009

HONG KONG, 27 May 2009 – Employers in Hong Kong have the opportunity to take advantage of the global recession to "up-skill' their workforce, and make hires with qualifications that otherwise would have been unavailable to them during boom times. They can also make these new hires at modestly discounted rates, according to a new report released today by Robert Half International.

In reverse of what was happening in the Hong Kong job market as recently as a year ago, the 2009 Robert Half Global Workplace Survey found that employers that do make hires have lowered their starting salaries by between 10 to 20 per cent. They have been able to do this because companies are laying off massive numbers of qualified workers to save costs, and the newly unemployed are weary of being jobless for too long, the survey found.

Conducted in February and March, it found that 39 per cent of respondents said their company had laid off workers, while 37 per cent said that their company had lowered starting salaries for new hires. Around 46 per cent of respondents said starting salaries had fallen by 10 per cent at their company, while another 38 per cent said it had gone down by between 11 per cent and 20 per cent.

Andrew Morris, Director, Robert Half Hong Kong, said: "What we are seeing is a lot of employers are doing some very clever hiring despite the downturn. It's given them access to qualified talent that they otherwise wouldn't have been able to get. They have able to make strategic hires with specific skill sets, and doing it at a reasonable discount. However, it is important to note that while some job seekers are willing to accept lower salaries to get back into the workforce, those top tier candidates can still command the same salaries and employers must keep this in mind when looking for top talent."

The current downturn has been especially hard for people working in the banking sector, with 58 per cent of respondents in Hong Kong saying that they have received job applications or inquiries from out of work bankers.

However, half of these same respondents said they would not consider hiring people with only banking backgrounds. The exception is for former banking employees skilled in risk management, project and corporate finance, and cash management, treasury, and for those with good contacts with rival banks, as these are areas which have become more crucial in the current downturn.

Finally, the study also found that 22 per cent of respondents expect demand for contract-based accounting and finance professionals will go up this year, citing flexibility (47%), the ability to save fixed costs (47%), giving the company skills not found among their full-time workforce (25%), and to supplement manpower during peak seasons (19%).

Companies in Hong Kong are also more likely, compared to their Asian counterparts, to make cuts in spending related to year-end or holiday festivities (23%), training programmes (22%), and free or discounted snacks or drinks to cut costs (21%), the survey found.

"Obviously, there is a need to lower spending during these difficult times, but employers should be aware that if they do so excessively, this could lower morale, and lead to negative word-of-mouth that damages the company's reputation," Mr Morris said.

The study polled 6,167 executives from 20 countries. Respondents ranged from middle managers to c-suite executives in a variety of roles including finance and accounting, human resources, information technology and sales.

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