The Inland Revenue Department is finding it hard to find accountants and other professionals as the strong economy lures them to better-paid jobs in the private sector. The department had 49 unfilled posts, or 7 per cent, of its 679 establishment at the end of March, slightly better than the 9 per cent earlier in the month. Alice Lau Mak Yee-ming, Commissioner of Inland Revenue, admitted that the strong economy had seen staff leave for better jobs, especially assistant tax assessors. To combat the problem, the department had filled some of the vacancies in the past few years by recruiting assistant assessors on non-civil service contracts. 'Notwithstanding a starting salary of HK$15,215 per month [that] was offered, there was high turnover among new recruits because of a lack of job security,' Ms Lau said. Those with two to three years' experience found it easier to get jobs in the private sector, she added. The Big Four accountancy firms are all looking for staff in Hong Kong but also to work in projects in the expanding financial sector on the mainland. Ernst & Young, one of the Big Four, plans to recruit 300 graduate students in Hong Kong at a starting salary of HK$11,100 a month. It recruited 200 students last year. The salary was 5 per cent higher than last year. A partner in the company, Loletta Chow, said it was inevitable that some Hong Kong staff would work on the mainland because of its increasing involvement there. She said the mainland had only about 130,000 accountants at present but needed 300,000. The company planned to employ 1,400 mainland accountants this year. However, Ms Lau said competition for staff came not only from the private sector but also from other government departments. These included the treasury and audit departments. To get more staff, the department had been allowed to resume a recruitment exercise for assistant assessors last October, a year earlier than other departments. The department also has vacancies for tax inspectors. People without degrees were eligible to apply for the posts that paid HK$13,515 a month, she said. Apart from trying to offer more competitive salaries, better job security and promotion prospects for those on non-civil service contracts, the department would improve its management of human resources by introducing a comprehensive training programme. However, Poon Wai-ming, chairman of the Senior Government Officers' Association, said the current staff problem was the tip of the iceberg. 'The government has said it will spend about HK$29 billion on infrastructure projects in upcoming years, so there is going to be a huge demand for engineers.'