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Human Resources

Look before you leap into an Asian IT role this year

As a new year rises over the East China Sea, what prospects for ex-pat IT job-seekers considering a move to more exotic climes in 2015? There’s no doubt the recruitment markets of Hong Kong and China are buoyant, but have the caveats to a move east also grown over the past 12 months? Asia has never been a particularly easy place for westerners to adapt to, however enticing it might seem on the surface.

Let’s take a look at what could be in store for the ambitious, globe-trotting IT job-seeker.

Same old boom?

If you ask the major recruitment agencies, little has changed since 2014. In Harvey Nash’s 2014 CIO Survey, 42% of Hong Kong and China CIOs reported plans to increase headcount last year, and the firm’s APAC MD Nick Marsh told me it expects to see that demand continue. Hong Kong has always been an easier place for the non-Chinese language speaking ex-pats to find work – we’ve partly got its history as a British colonial outpost and status as a city built on international commerce to thank for that. Ties to the mainland may have tightened in recent years – leading to a preference for Mandarin from some employers – but, according to the local Michael Page Technology manager, James Leung, “there are still plenty of opportunities on the market for expat IT professionals here in Hong Kong.”

When it comes to China, there’s even more on offer – especially in e-commerce, pharmaceutical, automotive and high tech, says Michael Page’s director there, Joshua Wrafter. Top skills in demand are apparently commercial business partner roles, web development and application development. However, spoken and written Mandarin is still a key requirement for most. “It is best to gain working knowledge within Asia – ideally the China market – have Mandarin language skills, and align yourself to high growth areas,” he adds.

For Harvey Nash MD Marsh, the skills in demand revolve around cloud, mobile, digital and project management, with business acumen, leadership capabilities and an ability to innovate also important.

“However, expat workers will see increased competition for roles as local talent gain additional skills and experience and companies increasingly select ‘glocals’ – local talent with overseas education and/or experience – as their first choice,” he said. “Fast fading are the days when expats were parachuted in from outside the region into leadership roles.”

Money, money, money

So you’ve got your language skills down and you’re pretty confident of fitting into a Chinese workplace. What’s stopping you from applying out East? Well, a couple of new reports caught my eye which might be worth considering before you hit send on that CV. The first comes from ECA International, a firm which makes its living as a consultancy providing HR data to firms so they can work out ex-pat packages and the like.

On the one hand, the news for Hong Kong is relatively good in that the SAR has dropped one place in ECA’s latest cost of living rankings to become only the tenth most expensive place to live in Asia Pacific. This is despite the cost of traditional goods and services purchased by ex-pats rising 4.5% in the city state. One important caveat to bear in mind, according to Michael Page’s Leung, is that ex-pats are usually these days only being considered on local terms and packages – which could be considerably less than expected.

“It is important to keep an open mind on salary expectations as we are seeing fewer expat packages, such as joining bonuses, housing allowances, education and annual flights home,” he said.

On the mainland things are less rosy still. Beijing and Shaghai both rose a few places to sit at fourth and third in APAC and 15th and 14th globally in terms of most expensive places to live.

“Despite slower growth in China, the price of items in ECA’s shopping basket rose faster this year than last and Chinese locations continue to rise in the ranking,” regional director Lee Quane explained in the report.

Keeping your cool

One final word of warning if you’re thinking of a fresh start in the Orient this year. Be prepared to work hard – very hard – and not in an entirely pleasant office environment. An illuminating study by office rental firm Regus in December found that Hong Kong exceeds the global average quite significantly in terms of various office stress factors. Lack of staff (28%), working hours (11%), and unreliable or obsolete technology (26%) were major black marks. In particular the percentage who found their colleagues a significant cause of stress (11%) was more than double the global average, while working to deadlines (24%) came in ten percentage points higher than the average.

In China, the biggest complaint (34%) was a lack of exercise and healthy eating – far above the global average of 21%. The choking pollution can’t help either.

“Companies in Hong Kong are demanding; they want to continue to reduce costs, while driving improved business performance,” Regus Hong Kong country manager Michael Ormiston told me. “There’s nothing wrong with such goals. But, when they are combined with a lack of staff resources, they add up to the number one stress factor in Hong Kong today.”

There are still a huge number of benefits to be had from taking a few years out to further your IT career in Asia, of course. But more than most moves, it pays to take a good look around before you leap.

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Phil Muncaster

Phil Muncaster has been writing about technology since joining IT Week as a reporter in 2005. After leaving his post as news editor of online site V3 in 2012, Phil spent over two years covering the Asian tech scene from his base in Hong Kong. Now back in London, he always has one eye on what's happening out East.

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