On your guard, get set, go
When recruiters in Hong Kong start comparing the current job market with 2007 rather than with any of the intervening years, it is clear that things are more than buoyant.
But as everyone remembers, boom can turn to bust and general prospects change almost overnight. So even as employers push ahead with hiring and good candidates once again find themselves fielding multiple job offers, every upbeat assessment or positive report comes with a word of caution attached.
For example, while Matthew Bennett, managing director for recruitment firm Robert Walters, confirms it has been 'a good strong period' especially since March, he nevertheless sees no increase in the overall speed of the hiring process. This points to employers - and candidates - thinking long and hard about new appointments.
'That is not a bad thing,' Bennett says. 'They just want to make sure it is the right move. For candidates, that usually means moving to a secure role in a secure company. For employers, it means taking time over placements in case there is another dip into recession. Line managers are being reminded of the training and revenue [implications] of not making the correct hires.'
That said, Bennett is seeing significant hiring activity across all industries and sectors. There is a particular demand for sales people in revenue-generating roles, marketing staff to differentiate a company's products or services, and finance and compliance experts. The spike in tourist arrivals and local consumer confidence is also continuing to boost the need for all types of hotel, catering, retail and customer service staff.
After some big increases in headcount last year, front-office banking appears to be one of a few areas where hiring has slowed, as employers pause to assess their return on investment.
These themes are borne out by data from the South China Morning Post and Classified Post's own analysis of job advertisements placed in Hong Kong's six main recruitment publications. It shows a total of 40,581 ads in this year's first quarter. That represents a 16.3 per cent jump from the 34,899 ads of last year's final quarter and a 21.4 per cent improvement on the 33,430 ads placed in the first three months of 2010. Directly reflecting the rebound in consumer spending, the two sectors creating the most jobs in the first quarter were hotels and catering with 5,513 posts, and retail and wholesale with 4,642 positions.
And confirming the broad base of the current recovery, the job types recording major advances included engineering, accounting, administrative and clerical roles.
Highlighting other areas, Anthony Thompson, managing director of Michael Page International and Page Personnel, notes the number of new jobs in legal and professional services, logistics and manufacturing. The latter might surprise some, but reflects the continuing need for local production, operations and finance managers to oversee factory output further afield.
'The mood of the market continues to be very positive across the board,' Thompson says. 'We have seen active job numbers increasing month by month and would expect that to continue into the fourth quarter.'
Also noticeable is higher demand for technically skilled human resources people. This shows that companies are 'getting serious' about how they train, manage and develop employees. It is recognised that engagement and retention have a real impact on morale, efficiency and the corporate bottom line, and that the right kind of professional expertise brings marked improvements.
'Companies we work with have sensible parameters and a clear view of what is value for money,' Thompson says. 'They create career plans for individuals that include increased rewards, but generally they expect candidates to make an impact fairly quickly.'
This requirement, he explains, leads employers to refer to a talent shortage in Hong Kong. Specifically, what they are talking about is a lack of mid- to senior-level candidates with several years' industry-relevant experience, who can slot in immediately. Even for organisations with their own management trainee programmes, that problem looks sure to persist.
Mark Carriban, Hudson's managing director for Asia, sees other emerging trends to which companies will have to adjust.
One is that younger candidates now entering the workforce have their own sense of what is important. Surveys consistently show that Generation Y members - those born in the late '80s and early '90s - rank work-life balance as a top priority and are less excited by traditional motivations such as status and responsibility.
Closely linked to this, another trend is the need to focus more on talent management. Carriban describes this as 'fixing the leaky bucket' - essentially making sure that good people don't leave through lack of care and attention.
A third trend, already evident in many Western markets, is the move towards contract professionals rather than full-time staff.
'It is flexible and has benefits from the organisation's and the candidate's point of view,' Carriban says. 'I suspect these [arrangements] will steadily find more cultural acceptance in emerging markets.'