The global recession has left few sectors of the economy unscathed, but the hardest hit has been the banking and finance sectors where job opportunities in some areas are down by more than 50 per cent, as most banks have slapped a strict hiring freeze. 'The banking and financial services industry - a customer, asset and capital driven sector - remains a challenging market for candidates because of the consolidation and restructuring within the industry since the financial tsunami in 2008,' said Eunice Ng, a director at Avanza Consulting. The worst affected areas are investment banking, private equity and private banking, while some niche sectors, such as hedge funds and asset management, are showing signs of recovery. 'There is some employment movement in these areas, which are focusing on hiring individuals with a direct track record and specific experience in hedge funds, and major asset management players,' Ms Ng said. Now, more than ever, executives have to justify every level of recruitment and prove the new hire is exactly what they need. 'Firms are very specific about what they want. They are looking for direct and proven industry backgrounds and experience, so it is very rare for individuals to be able to move into new areas within the industry,' Ms Ng said. To stay competitive in the cut-throat job market, recruiters are advising candidates to see the downturn as an opportunity to further hone their skills, whether it is in the strengthening of soft skills, such as networking, presentation and communication, or acquiring finance-related qualifications or expertise in a specific product area. 'Candidates need to be proactive but not too aggressive. They should be strategic about who they approach and how they network, rather than just randomly looking for opportunities all over the place. 'They should work on themselves as a total holistic package, and leverage on how they can better prepare themselves for the opportunities available,' Ms Ng said. Prospective candidates should keep an open mind when negotiating terms and conditions of their contract. Some individuals had been willing to forego the bonus portion of their remuneration package and focus solely on discussing their fixed salary, Ms Ng said. The market is not entirely devoid of good news, however. China Construction Bank (CCB Asia) is one of the few banks pressing ahead with its branch network expansion plan in Hong Kong and Macau because of the strong fiscal position of its parent company, China Construction Bank, which had approved an injection of US$800 million to help strengthen the asset quality and business network of its subsidiary. CCB Asia is looking to add 200 staff to its workforce of more than 1,200 this year, in line with the corporation's aim to increase its consumer banking branches in Hong Kong and Macau to 60 by 2010 from 40. Grace Lee Shuk-ha, CCB Asia's vice-president and head of human resources, said the positions available were wide-ranging and applied to all levels of experience. 'We are looking for people with the desire, drive and ability to excel and win in a market environment like this one, and have the capability to cope with changes. We want individuals with integrity and a passion for their career in addition to industry knowledge and experience,' she said. The havoc sustained by the banking and finance sector over the past year had also pushed up recruitment standards across the board, she said, noting that all banks wanted prospective candidates to demonstrate a higher level of professionalism, ethics and knowledge. The bank, which thrives on a performance-based philosophy with emphasis on collaboration and teamwork, said its culture would be suited to high-performing team players committed to continuous learning and improvement. 'Those that excel with a growing bank like ours can expect ample opportunities,' Ms Lee said, adding that individuals would find a well-defined and specific career track regardless of whether they joined as a trainee or took on a specific functional role. An individual joining as a teller could, depending on performance, become one of the bank's branch managers within eight years. 'People who have a clear career mind, understand the direction of their career, have a plan for self-improvement and show concern about their own development tend to impress us the most,' said Ms Lee, adding that quality job candidates, who had proven performance and good experience, would always have a winning edge regardless of the market conditions. Weathering the storm might be especially tough for those on the frontlines in the short term, but banks such as Standard Chartered, which was looking to tap qualified and experienced relationship managers from the market for its premium banking division, said patience was key. Susanna Liew, general manager of Standard Chartered's premium banking division, said: 'During this period, we are encouraging our relationship managers to spend more time getting to know their customers. 'They should stay close to them so they know we are here to help them through this cycle,' Ms Liew said.