Opportunities amid gloom

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 June, 2009, 12:00am

Organisations hiring in today's economic climate are taking advantage of the shrinking recruitment market. They recognise that there are bright patches of opportunity, even amid the negative economic headlines that highlight layoffs, cutbacks and plunging profits.

'With companies now cutting back, the supply-demand equation has shifted a bit,' said Bin Wolfe, a partner and Greater China people leader at Ernst & Young. 'There is less competition for talent out there, which, in turn, allows us access to a larger talent pool. This is a good thing for us.'

Though a wider talent pool allowed for more choice, Ms Wolfe emphasised that it did not make hiring that much easier.

'We are trying to recruit the best people, the same as what everyone else is trying to do. At the end of the day, regardless of whether the market is good or bad, there will always be opportunities for outstanding individuals,' she added.

Janet Bibi Ferreira, director of human resources and administration at mid-sized accounting firm Baker Tilly Hong Kong, agreed and said that fishing for talent in the downturn might be slightly less difficult, but the recruitment of quality staff remained challenging.

Ernst & Young and Baker Tilly Hong Kong are two accounting firms that are defying the economic downturn and are continuing to recruit. Ernst & Young has been seeking experienced staff with niche industry expertise. The firm's multidisciplinary team advises clients on a range of business issues, including business risk, financial services risk management, technology and security risk, and fraud investigation and dispute.

Meanwhile, recruitment for its graduate scheme has remained on track.

This year, the firm hopes to attract about 1,500 graduates in Hong Kong and the mainland, the same intake as last year.

'Our firm's business model is about getting in graduates and training them to become accounting professionals. We take a long-term view on this and know that if we stop hiring just because of the economic conditions we will, three to four years down the road, be hurt because we would no longer be able to leverage on the apprenticeship model,' Ms Wolfe explained.

The dynamics of the graduate market have also shifted somewhat as financial institutions reduce their graduate intakes and allow hiring organisations, such as Ernst & Young, greater choice.

Baker Tilly Hong Kong is also capitalising on the shrinking recruitment market to find top-notch experienced staff for its booming business recovery and insolvency division.

The division focuses on three broad areas: turnaround and rescue consulting, business restructuring and corporate recovery, and insolvency.

'Candidates have been drawn to our firm because of our down-to-earth, family-oriented culture, and friendly and stable environment,' said Ms Ferreira, adding that the firm has about 180 staff in Hong Kong.

Managing a firm's reputation has become especially important in a market where employees are cautious about job moves, and hesitant about adapting to a new office environment.

'In this type of market, it takes a lot for people doing well in their current alignment to switch jobs, which is why we have to work equally hard, if not harder, to show prospective candidates our commitment to our practices and demonstrate how good a future with us would be,' Ms Wolfe said.

Ernst & Young's reputation as a leading accounting and professional services firm, and its culture of allowing individuals to achieve their potential, has, in the past, attracted top professionals.

'What's more, the fact that we have continued to invest in our business, particularly in China, even when things are tough also sends out a good message to candidates,' she added.

Aside from managing a positive external image, firms such as Baker Tilly Hong Kong are also using these quieter times to upgrade the existing skills of its staff.

Upgrading staff competency has translated into a range of innovative measures, including the introduction of a buddy system - a mentoring mechanism within the firm, with peer-group training sessions in which colleagues share their experience and knowledge on a specific subject - and technical and soft-skills training.

'An accountant is required to be much more holistic these days,' Ms Ferreira said. 'They are no longer just back office staff, but need to demonstrate much broader knowledge, help clients understand the changes in the accounting industry, and to give advice beyond their own scope. That's why it is so important for accountants to have a business sense.'

The firm's business training relied on the use of case studies, which allowed participants to understand the connection between the technical framework and the practical situation, she added.

Ms Ferreira also urged accountants to step back from their daily assignments, and to take time over their work, to think more strategically and plan better. 'In the long-term, this approach will help develop better and smarter accountants who, in the process, will earn a better work-life balance,' she said.

For those who have been laid off, their time should be well spent, either to gain further training or acquire specific types of experiences through volunteer opportunities. 'It is very important to maintain an upbeat attitude. After all, everyone wants to work with people who are positive and can maintain a healthy outlook through this period,' Ms Wolfe said.