Marco Wong lost his job with Citigroup in Singapore in mid-January. During all the turmoil that engulfed the financial world last year, the cutbacks at the U.S. banking giant were neither unique nor surprising.
Still, Mr. Wong says, Citigroup’s decision not to renew his contract shortly before it was due to end “came as quite a shock.”
But 20 job applications, four interviews and three and a half months later, Mr. Wong was again gainfully employed — as a financial consultant at IPP Financial Advisors in Hong Kong.
Asia has already emerged more forcefully from recession than the United States and Europe, economic reports over the past month have shown. Now, that upturn here is starting — at least tentatively and in certain sectors — to feed into the job market. Hiring is starting to pick up again, recruiters and bankers say.
Broad unemployment is still rising, a normal pattern even after economies begin to emerge from recession. But economists say that any early signs of job growth are a prerequisite for a more solid-based recovery — one in which more confident consumers, and not just huge government stimulus packages, can play a role in lifting the economy.
Perhaps the most striking element in the new hiring: Almost a year after Lehman Brothers folded — roiling financial markets, spurring a remake of the banking landscape and feeding one of the worst recessions in modern history — it is the financial sector that is leading the way. “The death of the industry has been greatly exaggerated,” said Matthew Hoyle, founder of Matthew Hoyle Financial Markets, a specialist headhunter for the banking and hedge fund industries, based in Hong Kong. “I am actually quite excited about the prospects for the rest of the year. Things have picked up here — unlike in Europe and the U.S., where that’s absolutely not the case,” he added.
To be sure, the recovery in Asia is tenuous, and highly dependent on a recovery in the West, a major market for the region’s export-driven economies. But for now, the picture is brightening.
Jerry Gunnell, a corporate cash management specialist in Singapore, fell victim to Bank of America’s headcount reductions in February. He is now back in the saddle at Standard Chartered, a British bank that does much of its business in Asia, in a somewhat different but equally senior position he took up in mid-June, also in Singapore.
In the past month, several banks have announced plans for some serious hiring in Asia.
Standard Chartered intends to hire about 850 relationship managers for its consumer banking business over the next 18 months, to gain a larger market share of affluent customers in Asia.
HSBC — which, like Standard Chartered, is very active in Asia — is recruiting more than 100 staff members in Hong Kong. In mainland China, it plans to add 1,000 employees this year, and a similar number next year.
Bank of New York Mellon recently announced it would increase its 150-strong Hong Kong staff by another 50 as part of its expansion in Asia.
And ANZ of Australia, which recently bought some Asian operations from Royal Bank of Scotland , the battered British lender, is hiring 100 senior private bankers in the region over the next 18 months.
Several others, including Citigroup, Nomura, Barclays Capital, Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas, have announced new hires and appointments in recent weeks.
Tales like these highlight the newfound dynamism that is starting to creep back into the Asian job market. While unemployment continues to rise in much of Europe and is expected to top 10 percent in the United States before any improvement materializes, rates in Asia have remained relatively low: 5.4 percent in Hong Kong and 3.3. percent in Singapore.
One relatively weak spot is Japan. The jobless rate hit a seasonally adjusted 5.7 percent in July, the highest level since the end of World War II and up from 5.4 percent in June.
But elsewhere, recruitment firms are busy again. “Last October, after Lehman Brothers collapsed, the lights went out here; it was really quite frightening,” said Nigel Heap, managing director for the recruitment firm Hays in Sydney. “But we’re now cautiously optimistic that the worst is over in places like Hong Kong and Singapore.”
Andrea Williams, managing director of Ambition, a headhunting firm in Hong Kong, said that things started to turn noticeably from April onward. “During the second quarter of this year, we got in 20 percent more jobs than during the first three months of the year,” Ms. Williams said. “Yes, we’re still below where we were a year earlier, but it’s definitely encouraging.”
A survey in August by Robert Walters, a recruiting firm based in Singapore, showed that job ads in the Hong Kong, Singapore, Chinese and Japanese media nudged up 6.4 percent in the April-to-June quarter from the previous three months.
Of course, for the legions of those who lost their jobs and still remain unemployed, or who are still being laid off as some companies continue to struggle, it is too early to celebrate. “It’s not an across-the-board improvement — it’s pretty patchy in terms of sectors, and in terms of geographies — but things are at least holding steady or even getting better in some parts,” said Darryl Green, who heads Asia Pacific and Middle East operations for Manpower, a temporary employment and recruiting company. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say we were negative during the first half of the year,” he said. “Now, we’re at 0.5 or 1 — not huge, but better, and definitely stronger than in the Americas and Europe.”
Nearly all of the jobs that are coming back are “replacements” of previously cut positions, not new jobs, market experts here say. And employers are still being very cautious and choosy when it comes to hiring.
But increasingly, the champagne is coming back out, as Asia’s economies and stock markets are recovering — faster than expected, and faster than Europe and America.
Demand in the financial sector is strongest for back-office positions like compliance and accounting, as well as client relationship and asset management — a business in which many banks want to expand to tap the growing number of increasingly wealthy Asian savers.
Hedge funds, too, are again looking to increase staff, said Mr. Hoyle in Hong Kong. “A lot of the big U.S. hedge funds retrenched — they are regretting it now.”
Outside the financial sector, there is anecdotal evidence of hiring in other areas, though it is patchy.
Demand for sales jobs, for example, has picked up across all sectors as companies focus their still scarce resources on jobs they hope will help generate immediate revenues. “Asia is seen as a growth market,” said Mark Ellwood of the Robert Walters recruitment agency, in Singapore. “Companies are not going out all guns blazing again, but there is once again an appetite to hire in certain areas.”
In Hong Kong, Eike Croucher, a communications manager, was laid off from Swiss Re after the reinsurance company announced in April that it would shed 10 percent of its 11,500-strong global work force. Mrs. Croucher had a job offer from the German chemicals giant BASF on the evening of her last day at Swiss Re, thanks to some fast networking. “I was very, very lucky, of course, that things happened so quickly,” she said.
In another example, one senior marketing executive who lost her Singapore-based job with a large U.S. software company, had been in the region for four years. The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to the media, found a job at another U.S. company in the same sector. It took 7 weeks of research, 45 applications and a dozen job interviews.
It is still very much an employers’ market. Generous “expat packages” — in which overseas employees have much of their housing and their kids’ schooling paid for — are for many a thing of the past.
The most successful candidates have experience in Asia, a network of contacts and language skills. It is difficult for someone to just pack up and move over from New York or London, where the market remains much gloomier. “Employers are still being extra, extra selective in their talent search,” said Mark Carriban, the Asia managing director based in Hong Kong for Hudson, a recruiting agency. “And what is very prized out here is local market knowledge.”
In fact, many recruiters are already starting to warn that a “talent crunch” could be only months away, with companies again struggling to find people with the right combination of international qualifications, contacts and languages — of which there is a limited supply.
One piece of advice for job seekers, though easier said than done: “Learn Mandarin,” Mr. Carriban said.