Economies across Asia and the world are in a tailspin. The mainland's exports are shrinking, factories are closing and migrant workers are returning to their villages. In Europe, industrial output is dropping. Some economists in Britain are saying that it's the worst economic crisis to hit the nation in six decades. While the United States scrambles to save its once-formidable vehicle industry from going belly up, things in Japan have become so dire that some business owners are coming up with marketing schemes that give new meaning to the term working for peanuts. One restaurant in Tokyo has employed monkeys to wait on diners - though this is as much a publicity stunt as it's a way to save money on salaries. This is clearly no time for employees to rest on their laurels. As one industry insider put it, employees - from top management to the rank and file - should be making themselves as indispensable to their employers as possible. And that just might mean considering a return to the classroom. 'Each individual needs to continuously improve his or her own core competence in order to stay competitive in the job market and sustain personal career success,' said Caroline Wang, adjunct professor in the business school at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). 'Within the organisation, each individual needs to learn to improve organisational success through personal contribution ... in order to be valued by the organisation and continue his or her success within the organisation.' The school is offering two executive short courses this spring. Running two days each, they are targeted at business leaders managing diverse workforces. The first, which will take place in March, is managerial decision making and leadership. 'This programme is experiential to a great extent,' said Della Wong, HKUST's associate director of the executive education office at the business school. 'Participants will have the opportunity to discuss and practice their decision-making skills through lectures, cases and role-plays.' The second course, which will take place in April, is called leading across diversities. 'It will be particularly valuable to leaders and managers who want to improve their abilities to lead in the diverse workplace in order to achieve organisational missions with higher personal job satisfaction,' Ms Wong said. All of Hong Kong's universities have business schools offering a variety of programmes - from short executive education courses, such as those at HKUST, to fully fledged degree programmes in such fields as finance, marketing and accounting. The most popular are those leading to an MBA. Scores of other course providers - including various local and offshore bodies - offer a similar range of options. James Lo, manager of partnership, acquisition and partnership at American Express, opted for an MBA at the Australian Graduate School of Management, which has a branch campus in Hong Kong. Offering considerable flexibility, the programme can be completed in two to seven years. 'The reason I pursued the MBA was because it is offered by the University of New South Wales, which is a reputable university in Australia and Asia-Pacific,' Mr Lo said. 'The programme is consistently ranked among the world's top 50 and is recognised by many employers in the region. The MBA has taught me to think like an entrepreneur. More importantly, I was taught to analyse and tackle a situation using innovative but pragmatic solutions.' Canada's Richard Ivey School of Business also maintains a campus in Hong Kong. It offers an executive MBA (EMBA) programme, which is targeted at senior executives working for multinational and Asian companies, entrepreneurs and professionals with at least 10 years of experience at the managerial level. 'The programme is unique in Hong Kong in that it is fully integrated by using a senior faculty from the Richard Ivey School of Business that is experienced and proficient in the use of the case-learning method,' said Kathleen Slaughter, dean of Ivey's Hong Kong campus. 'Candidates entering the programme are senior managers who are generally highly successful in their careers. They are highly employable mid- to senior-level executives who make their own decisions about career changes and career choices. They are far more likely to be contacted by headhunters than [having to search] for new careers [themselves].' Specialised MBAs were being hailed as the wave of the future a few years back. But they might be past their sell-by date. Polytechnic University (PolyU), which was one of the pioneers of the concept, offers MBAs with emphasis in general management, fashion business, financial services, information technology management, and innovation and design management. The university's graduate school of business is in the process of restructuring its MBA programmes. By next year, the emphasis will have been replaced by an MBA in general management. 'This move is to allow students more flexibility and choice,' said Howard Davies, associate dean at PolyU. 'Rather than locking students into the fashion concentration, for example, they will be able to pick and choose the elective courses they wish to take, but there will be no concentrations.'