Hong Kong's insurance companies are facing a new challenge. After recovering from tough economic conditions last year, they now find themselves in a battle to recruit new sales agents. Several insurance firms have launched recruitment campaigns for agents in recent months. Some are even offering salaried rather than commission-based packages, Michael Chan, head of distribution at Manulife, Hong Kong's second-largest life insurer and pension provider, said it was a marked turnaround from a year ago. At the trough of the economic downturn last year, many job-seekers turned to the insurance industry - although only 56 per cent pass the mandatory insurance agent licence examination. 'With the economy improving, it is now much easier to find other jobs,' Mr Chan said. 'Although the image of the insurance profession in Hong Kong has improved a lot, you still don't see many people with good qualifications expressing an interest to become insurance agents.' However, he is confident that the company will be able to add 400 new agents to its existing 3,000 by the end of the year - a first step towards a 5,000-strong team by 2009. Others are less optimistic. Derek Yung, vice-president and assistant general manager at AIA, Hong Kong's biggest insurer, said he expected his company to have a difficult time hiring 3,000 people this year to add to its 9,000-strong sales force. Other insurers looking to significantly increase agent headcount this year include Zurich Insurance, which said it would try to hire 130 fixed-salary financial advisers in addition to its 500 commission-based agents, and MLC Insurance, which plans to add 200 agents. Mr Chan said that there was a brighter side to the recruitment difficulties. 'If you look at the current hiring trend from a different perspective, there are indeed some positive signs,' he said. 'Even though we have problems adding people, the ones who are now joining are more likely to be those who have carefully thought about what they are getting into.'