Hong Kong's robust economy saw an active labour market last year, with lots of employees switching jobs. The outlook for job-hunters is expected to remain promising throughout the year as the pace of job creation picks up. Best of all, employment figures have improved in most sectors, for all age groups and at all levels of educational attainment, according to a spokesman for the Hong Kong Management Association (HKMA). According to figures released by the Census and Statistics Department, the total unemployment rate adjusted for seasonal variation went down to a four-year low of 5.2 per cent from December last year to February. Figures for the previous quarter were the same. 'The outlook for the Hong Kong job market is promising, with more job offers available,' said Glover Chan, HKMA senior marketing manager. 'The current pace of employment creation is actually stronger than in the past. According to a survey conducted recently, the middle management and non-managerial professionals segment recorded its highest turnover and vacancy rate in the fourth quarter of 2005.' All of which bodes well for job seekers. But those wanting to advance their careers should carefully consider their current skills set and see if there are any gaps or areas that need to be upgraded. 'Since Hong Kong has shifted to higher value-added services and a knowledge-based economy, together with increasing economic integration with a rapidly growing mainland economy, it is always a good time for Hong Kong people to keep learning and staying competitive,' Mr Chan said. 'Life-long learning is crucial to all executives. It has always been our advice to Hong Kong executives to acquire up-to-date skills and knowledge to survive in the ever-changing business environment.' Also emphasising this point was Kathleen Slaughter, associate dean, Asia, Richard Ivey School of Business, The University of Western Ontario, who added that a skills upgrade was vital for those aspiring to become leaders in Asia. The decision to return to the classroom is often triggered by a particular experience, according to Liddy Korner, associate director of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) MBA programme in Hong Kong. 'This frequently occurs when someone gets a promotion because of their outstanding skills in a particular area,' she said. 'These extra responsibilities highlight some professional gaps or weaknesses in their area of expertise. For example, someone with great marketing skills and experience might discover that they need to hone their financial skills as they move up the corporate ladder.' Another issue is what used to be referred to as the Peter Principle, or being promoted to one's level of incompetence. 'As young professionals spend most of their 20s advancing their careers and getting several promotions along the way, they start to feel a little out of their depth,' Ms Korner said. 'A comment I hear quite often goes like this: My undergraduate degree has served me well, but I have to improve my management skills to succeed at senior management level.' This raises an interesting issue. Assuming you wish to take that next step up the corporate ladder, get a better-paying job or switch careers altogether, are you better off pursuing an MBA or following an executive short course? 'In general, most MBA students are studying part-time and working full-time,' Ms Korner said. 'This means they must find a programme that fits their lifestyle. This could be intensive part-time study, distance education or traditional part-time study of one evening a week over 12 weeks. You must find the mode of study that suits your circumstances.' An MBA's benefits, according to Mr Chan, include a higher academic qualification, association with a world-class institution, the chance to gain a broad range of knowledge and the opportunity to establish a strong professional network while sharing experiences with senior executives from a diverse range of industries. Participants can also 'enhance self-confidence and sharpen their edge for better performance and career advancement'. The disadvantages to doing a master's degree include the time and financial commitments, the difficulty of maintaining a balance between conflicting commitments, and a lack of focus. 'A general degree may not be focused enough or in-depth enough to be useful in certain work situations,' Mr Chan said. 'Executive short courses provide quick skills that can be readily applied to their jobs. A degree programme requires a longer learning period.'