Southeast Asia financial services: a mixed picture for jobs and salaries

While demand for qualified personnel in transaction banking – as well as other financial services talent – has recently shown signs of cooling in Singapore, compliance is an exception and demand for talent is “crazy” while prospects vary in other markets across Southeast Asia.

That’s the message from Toby Fowlston, Southeast Asia managing director at the worldwide recruitment group Robert Walters, who spoke in Singapore at last week the launch of the firm’s annual Salary Survey, now in its 18th year.

The report suggests that the brightest prospects come from the shift to electronic commerce (e-commerce) from traditional retail, which is fueling demand for technology professionals with experience in developing the latest technologies and platforms.

“Due to the shortage of professionals with niche specialist skills, especially in markets such as IT, digital marketing and financial services, we recommend that employers keep their options open by considering high-potential candidates with transferable skills to fill their roles,” the authors recommend.

Fowlston’s presentation included the following highlights:

Singapore

“Singapore’s situation is what I would call relatively neutral at the moment; there are some really bright spots and there are some areas that are in a little bit of duress” reported Fowlston. “Even with the global economic and political uncertainty, Singapore will experience moderate levels of recruitment in 2017.”

Concerns around anti-money laundering (AML) compliance and financial crime as well as security have led banks in the city state to recruit even more professionals. Banks are increasingly looking beyond Southeast Asia for expertise, as subject matter experts who have the experience needed to deal with new regulations tend to be in more evolved markets. Fowlston cited one particular case, where a Singaporean working in London who had regulation experience was hired by a bank in Singapore even though they never even met her.

With relatively fewer opportunities in Singapore for bankers with other skills, staff tends to stay put and there is no longer the same level of growth that characterised the previous 10 years. One key change when banks do recruit is that firms expect applicants to have digital expertise. Every role “has technology involved in it,” Fowlston noted. “That’s endemic across all companies. This grey line between technology and other sectors is becoming less grey.”

He also noted that many companies choose to set up in Singapore, despite the cost of running a business, because of the city state’s good infrastructure so the number of regional treasury centres (RTCs) or in-house banks (IHBs), for example, could grow. As a report in the September 2016 issue of Global Treasury Briefing magazine noted, Hong Kong tops the annual Global Cost of Living survey compiled by the human resources consulting group Mercer and Singapore ranks fourth, while for employees Singapore’s cost of living is 1.45 times higher than that of the Australian city of Melbourne

Even though there is demand for compliance talent, Robert Walters expects banking salaries in Singapore in compliance – as well as in transaction banking sales, product and other functions – to rise only modestly if it even rises at all in 2017, from the analyst level on through to the director level.

Indeed, in some areas salary expectations have actually fallen in the past year – for example those in the supply chain and procurement sector have fallen sharply. An operations manager in supply chain/logistics would typically command an annual income of 60,000 Singapore dollars (SGD) to SGD100,000 currently, against SGD90,000 to SGD130,000 at the start of 2016.

Southeast Asia’s other markets

Across Southeast Asia’s other markets, Fowlston reported that there has been growth. A common theme is skills shortages and companies are seeking to lure “returning talent,” nationals from the country who have worked overseas and want to return home. There is also more localisation, resulting in fewer opportunities for non-locals in some markets.

Demand for treasury sales specialists has increased and staff will be in strong demand in Malaysia, for instance, while professionals with expertise in client onboarding are sought after in Indonesia. Thailand is slightly different, though, as “cost cutting will remain a key theme in 2017 and banks will look to further streamline their projects and business processes.”

Salary prospects are also better in certain other markets. In Indonesia, for example, Robert Walters’ data shows that staff in a significant number of banking and financial services functions may see salary increases of between 5% and 10%, while job movers “can expect salary increments of 20-30 percent.” Experienced banking professionals in Malaysia can expect a salary rise of “at least 25%” when moving to another organisation, and staff who stay in transaction banking jobs may secure increases of 5% to 10%.

In the Philippines, where gross domestic product (GDP) growth is expected to come in at 6.4% for 2016 and cool only slightly this year to 6.2%, the report notes a shortage of specialist professionals across all sectors. In accounting and finance roles, job movers can secure salary increases of 20% to 30% and – in certain cases – even more.

Vietnam is another country where demand for experienced finance professionals is strong, thanks in part to the rise of e-commerce and a rise in the number of tech start-ups.

Broader themes

Looking at other roles across Southeast Asia, Fowlston reported that technology stands out and there is also demand for staff with skills in customer engagement, cyber-security project management, e-commerce and business analytics.

Financial technology (fintech) is also a hot vertical in Singapore; with firms looking for millennials who have varied backgrounds and generally unconcerned if candidates have held multiple jobs. They’re less interested in individuals from major corporates, though, and prefer those who come from small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Fintechs don’t pay as well as big corporates either, and offer an equity share to offset lower pay.

Since companies are cost-focused, Fowlston said, they often want to hire their own recruitment teams. While there is some recruitment process outsourcing (RPO), job-seekers may want to keep the shift towards in-house teams in mind. Contract recruitment has gathered pace and is going to continue to grow, with the shift driven both by companies as well as by an increasing number of people wanting work-life balance and who prefer the flexibility of a six-month project.

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