THE NEWS IS that the Hong Kong job market is still growing - pushing salaries higher as employers bid for talent in the finance and legal sectors especially. But the giddy growth levels of the last quarter of 2006 are showing signs of slowing down, going by a snapshot of the workplace that emerges from three separate surveys of employment intentions for the first quarter of the new year. In its first quarter outlook survey for this year, recruitment and workplace consultant Manpower reported a decline in the number of Hong Kong employers who expected to raise their staff levels. The figure dropped to 20 per cent from 33 per cent in the final quarter of last year. Most employers (75 per cent) expected there would be no change in staff numbers. This left the 'net employment outlook' for Hong Kong companies (the percentage of employers expecting to raise staff numbers minus the percentage expecting to reduce their workforce) at 18 per cent as against 29 per cent in the previous quarter. Although the rapid growth rate has eased, the number of jobs being created continues to expand, the survey indicates. Weakening net growth rates were most marked in the finance, insurance and real estate sectors, where the net employment outlook was measured at a positive 18 per cent, compared with 45 per cent in the previous quarter. After seasonal adjustments, the employment growth forecast for the first quarter will push job levels up by 5 per cent year on year in these sectors. Meanwhile, the mining and construction sector bucked the trend, reporting accelerated quarter-on-quarter staffing expectations, with employers saying they were likely to expand their workforces (by a net 8 per cent) over the previous quarter. Year on year, that will take jobs growth in the sector to 22 per cent, reported Manpower. The Hays Quarterly Forecast for January identified a number of 'hot spots' for jobs growth in the first quarter, most notably in the accountancy and finance professions. 'Overall, the demand for experienced staff will remain high, as will the shortage of these candidates,' said Emma Charnock, regional director of Hays in Hong Kong. According to Hays, the top four areas of strongest demand across Hong Kong were: Tax specialists, particularly those with over three years of experience in a Big Four or internationally recognised accounting firm. With the end of the financial year approaching, corporations require the services of the Big Four for their tax returns and advice, which is heating up the demand for both individual and corporate tax specialists. Commerce and industry As companies in Hong Kong continue to relocate offices and/or expand into China, the need grows for senior finance executives with experience in Greater China taxation and accounting principles. Audit and compliance roles remain buoyant. Construction and property Experienced professionals across the board are in demand, from architects to engineers with exposure to large-scale mixed-use projects. The Hong Kong construction and property market is very active following a proliferation of building projects in Macau and the mainland. Legal The market will remain buoyant for multilingual, overseas-educated and qualified lawyers across Asia, with demand especially high for mid-level associates in banking and finance, capital markets, corporate mergers and acquisitions and projects. Meanwhile, the key findings of The Hudson Report on employment and human resources trends in Hong Kong for the year to March were that most companies remained 'very confident about the future' and would continue to expand manpower levels, said Gina McLellan, country manager, Hudson, Hong Kong. 'But the buoyant job market means that employers must boost salaries and bonuses substantially to attract the talent they need,' she said. The Hudson survey found that employment expectations had risen slightly in the first quarter of this year, and of the 514 executives in key business sectors, 54 per cent said that they planned to increase their headcount in the first three months of the year. The legal sector had the highest expectations, with 73 per cent of respondents planning to hire more staff, up from an already high 71 per cent in the final quarter of last year. The steepest rise in hiring expectations was reported by the media/public relations/advertising sector, where 58 per cent of firms planned to increase headcount, compared with 41 per cent in the previous quarter; Companies in all sectors, the report said, were 'very positive about the next six months', with 95 per cent forecasting excellent or good performance. With jobs growth continuing at a significant pace, salaries were also on the rise, reported Hudson. Half of the executives surveyed said they expected to increase new managers' salaries by more than 10 per cent, up from just 31 per cent of respondents a year earlier.