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Would-be brokers find work elusive

SIX months ago Patrick Brennan could have landed a job as a trainee broker in almost any firm in Hong Kong.

Today the 22-year-old graduate from Oxford and Beijing universities is still looking for his lucky break after a month searching for a job.

'All I need is a foot in the door, and it will not take me long to prove myself,' said Mr Brennan, who is willing to accept a starting salary of $20,000 a month.

Investment has always been in Mr Brennan's blood - when he was 14 he bought a cow and made a 500 per cent profit.

'Given the opportunity I could sell a bull to a bear,' he said.

But he has no delusions about the mercenary nature of his preferred work.

'In Hong Kong, one is a human commodity, and in terms of that I am value for money,' said Mr Brennan, who has so far seen about 12 brokerage firms.

Things would not be so difficult for Mr Brennan if it was not for the fact that there are hundreds more like him, each banging the same doors in search of a dealing desk to call home.

Fresh out of some of the finest universities in the world, they have shunned London and Wall Street to seek their fortune in the dynamic markets of Asia.

The old adage that only failures came to Hong Kong is no longer true. Now it is the best and the brightest who come to the territory for their first job, in the belief that the experience and environment will put them ahead of their peers at home.

But the sudden turnaround in markets has forced their potential employers to batten down the hatches and turn away newcomers.

Most nights these prospective bankers and brokers can be found in the bars of Lan Kwai Fong seeking contacts which might lead to a job.

The one thing they have in common is persistence, like the young man who called the same sales director every day for two months before he was granted an interview.

But even persistence is not enough nowadays.

Melinda Koster, area manager for employment agency Drake International, put it bluntly: 'Last year anything that was a warm body and moved could get a broking job. This year it is a lot tighter.' One man who has seen it all before is James Osborn, who heads Baring Securities' sales desk.

Each week he gets calls from at least five of these migrant workers who have been referred to him by a friend or client.

'Of course you like to help them, but you cannot employ everybody,' said Mr Osborn.

The issue, as always, is money.

Mr Osborn said: 'All the brokerages have geared up to deal with huge volumes. Markets have slackened off, so what is the point of adding to overheads when you are not running to full capacity.' Some job hopefuls even offer to work for free, but that does not make things any better.

Mr Osborn said: 'To me a $10,000 monthly salary is irrelevant. The real cost is in overheads, and whether you want an extra person in the office taking up a dealing desk.' What will become of those hopefuls who do not make it is not known. Many end up working in the bars of Central and Wan Chai before heading home disillusioned.

But the stories of those who make it, like one woman who walked from a dormitory bedroom in Chungking Mansions into a $30,000 derivatives job at an American brokerage, continue to inspire the breed.

Mr Osborn may well be right when he said that people had an illusion of Hong Kong as a place to make a fortune. But so long as some do, the hopefuls will keep arriving by the plane-load.