In today’s business climate where change and growth are inextricably linked, quality talent with the ability to adapt is fast becoming a desired commodity particularly within banking and finance circles.

The landscape of HR and hiring has become increasingly competitive, and despite the high number of supposedly qualified candidates entering the job market, the financial services sector seems to be unrelenting in their search for the perfect candidate and unwilling to settle for anything less than anyone with a diverse set of skills, including leadership and soft skills. 

Are these expectations however, a far cry from the reality of the global talent landscape? And could this be the reason why the numbers reflecting the skills gap in the financial services sector is still growing at an unprecedented pace? Despite the excruciating rounds of layoffs that have reverberated throughout the banking and finance community since the global credit crisis in 2008 - with global banks cutting up to 160,000 jobs in 2012 alone (source: Financial Times) - banks and financial institutions are still struggling to hire the right talent that suits their needs; whether it be global and regional growth aspirations, or talent that can spur innovation.

In our quest to gain insight into the talent game in Asia, we speak to Tom Osborne, regional director for Malaysia at global recruitment firm Hays to uncover the definition of quality talent  and learn what employers really want.

Through your interactions with the market, what would employers in the banking and finance industry define as quality talent and what skills do they most seek when looking to hire?

While the definition of ‘quality’ talent can vary slightly person to person, in general, employers looking for quality talent want to see candidates with strong interpersonal and communication skills, along with relevant experience and qualifications. Employers also expect a candidate who can ‘fit’ with an organisation’s vision, culture and values.

In the banking and finance industry, employers continue to favour candidates with regional and international experience. At the same time, knowledge of local regulations are equally important. Regulators in Malaysia are tightening governance measures and it is important for one to be able to balance best global practices with understanding of the local market.

Banks in particular want new hires that can help with their plans to internationalise their organisations. Not surprisingly, candidates want to join organisations with a global company culture that offer mobility and opportunities to develop international experience.

Business-focused finance professionals will continue to be in demand this year as organisations look to develop the capabilities of their finance departments. As a result, candidates need to be able to demonstrate their commercial acumen during the recruitment process and explain how they have used their skills to add value in past roles.

A lot of organisations within Financial Services are undergoing major transformation or system upgrades. Those entities whose infrastructure and framework are already in place are now moving towards culture change. As such, professionals working within these entities need to be a change agent and possess the soft skills to manage stakeholders and get buy in from their team members to encourage change.

The global talent shortage seems unrelenting despite the number of graduates looking to enter the job market. Are HR managers in Malaysia and South East Asia attuned to the talent needs of these banks and financial institutions, and are they able to effectively make hiring decisions?

Yes, they are attuned to these needs. It is understandable that employers want to hire quality talent who will meet their requirements, suit the business and add value. But you are right that there is a talent shortage in banking and finance – our own research has found that almost one half (45 percent) of employers believe that the skills shortage has the potential to hamper the effective operation of their business or department.

In our survey of 2,361 employers, representing over four million (4,017,026) employees, we found that the most difficult professionals to recruit are senior management candidates in accountancy and finance, banking, sales, engineering, marketing, operations and human resources (Table 1).  Finding entry to mid-management candidates is also challenging.

Table 1:  Percentage of employers who find it difficult to recruit the following professionals:

  Junior to Mid Management Senior Management   Junior to Mid Management Senior Management
Human Resources 10% 10% Operations 15% 11%
Accountancy & Finance 12% 13% Distributions 4% 3%
Banking & Financial Services 6% 3% Purchasing 5% 4%
Sales 24% 18% IT 15% 7%
Marketing 12% 12% Technical 17% 9%
Engineering 19% 13% Healthcare 3% 3%
Property / Facilities Management 4% 3% Research & Development 8% 8%
Legal 5% 6% Other 5% 3%

source : HAYS Asia Salary Guide 2015


In response to these findings, and despite the increasing trend to localise the workforce, 65 percent of employers said they will consider employing or sponsoring a qualified overseas or expatriate candidate in skill-short areas. This particular finding demonstrates the extent of Asia’s talent mismatch and the severe shortage of suitably skilled local professionals in many industries and sectors.

It also highlights the need for employers to continue innovating to attract candidates in a tight labour market. This is especially important since 48 percent of employers told us they expect their permanent staff levels to increase in the year ahead and 72 percent expect their level of business activity to increase. HR professionals can positively affect the outcome by highlighting the chase for talent internally and therefore ensuring that hiring managers make decisions quickly.

With regard to the current supply of graduates, again there is a talent mismatch. Today many employers value candidates with experience as well as a degree, rather than those who have studied but did not complete any work experience while studying.  It is very important for students to gain work experience during their University breaks to show that they are focused on developing their practical skills, and not just their academic knowledge.

Within the region, which country in your opinion produces the most ‘exportable’ class of finance professionals and what skills do they possess that surpasses others?

The most ‘exportable’ class of finance professionals are probably based in either Singapore or Hong Kong and have worked for large multinational companies (MNCs). This is due to these countries’ Financial Services industries being more developed compared to Malaysia, for instance. In fact, they are the regional hubs within Asia Pacific and their branches in Malaysia tend to report in to these countries. As such, the exposure that professionals receive in Singapore and Hong Kong is a lot more extensive and results in them developing better skill sets. To a certain degree this can be reversed by attracting Malaysian candidates who have worked overseas or by having businesses focus on talent from overseas although there are regulatory challenges around doing this. 

Employers outside Asia increasingly value talent with international experience and an international mindset. These candidates are highly valued since they have worked in an MNC and also have local cultural understanding and knowledge of how business is done in Asia.

These candidates also develop cross-cultural communication skills, which can only come from being immersed in another culture. Their knowledge gives them intercultural understanding and cultural adaptability. With an increasing number of MNCs establishing or expanding their regional offices across Asia, demand for local talent with global business experience and acumen will only continue to increase.

According to a recent poll conducted by Hays, Singapore has the most globally-mobile workforce in Asia, with 97 percent of jobseekers admitting they would consider leaving Singapore to work overseas. Of these, 85 percent would leave for better job opportunities, career development or exposure, while 12 percent would leave for lifestyle factors. In Hong Kong 94 percent of respondents would work overseas, just ahead of Malaysia’s 93 percent.

Are candidates with professional qualifications more valuable than those with a degree in finance?

In addition to an undergraduate degree, professional qualifications can help a candidate stand out from the crowd when there are several otherwise equal candidates with the same levels of experience. Choosing to study a professional course will always be looked upon favourably as it shows a commitment to improving your skills.

For example, the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) qualification can be valuable as it is occasionally a requirement for front office related banking roles, particularly in investment research type positions.  Alternatively, in Hong Kong some employers want to see that candidates have completed a master’s degree or have plans to continue further education to advance themselves, as opposed to having the CFA qualification.

In functions like compliance, certain professional qualifications like Certificate of Anti-Money Laundering (CAMS) are mandatory. This usually applies to newly set-up functions whereby they need professionally qualified individuals to be able to drive new initiatives in-house.

What is the current landscape for leadership succession in Malaysia, and how can corporates improve on this in order to assure continuity in this area?

If we look to the future, in order to remain competitive, we need to ensure that Malaysia has a future pipeline of talent who have the skills and experience necessary to replace our ageing workforce. Otherwise there will be a skills vacuum that will take many years and a huge amount of investment to fill.

That’s why employers have to strike the right balance between retaining highly-valued, well-educated and experienced older workers, and recruiting and developing the next generation of employees. Ultimately, companies should be recruiting, developing and training staff at all levels and of all ages.

The number of mid-management talent in Financial Institutions is limited. This is because they are the movers of the functions and the skill sets become highly sought after. Employers are becoming more aware of this and are doing various initiatives to keep the employees engaged and make them feel that there will be progression paths for them internally.

In the last two years, banks have been restructuring their job-grading to create more boxes so that employees will have definite objectives to aim towards.

The ongoing training and development of competent people of all ages is essential to the future success of businesses in Malaysia. After all, organisations need to ensure their workforce continues to evolve according to changing market conditions. When a leader decides to retire, companies need to have suitably trained and experienced professionals in place to fill the skills gap.

We often hear the term ‘soft skills’. Is there a difference in the interpretation or expectations between employers in Asia and the West with regards to their definition of ‘soft skills’?

The ‘soft skills’ of problem solving, communication and open-mindedness are considered the most critical to success in multiple industries including banking and finance, and these skills are sought by employers in both the West and Asia.

These soft skills can include anything from being able to work efficiently as part of a team and build relationships, to the manner in which phone calls and emails are handled, to giving presentations in front of clients and management as well as getting buy-in internally and externally.

Organisational skills are also commonly cited by employers as a soft skill they value and look for. There are plenty of ways you can demonstrate your organisational skills, from running events to breaking a large project down into manageable pieces or planning your busy workload to ensure all tasks get done on time.

Finally, candidates with strategic ability who are able to see how businesses can be impacted by broader business trends are becoming increasingly sought after. For this reason we encourage candidates to volunteer to chair meetings, help run a team project or mentor a junior member of the team.

Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) is a relatively popular concept in more developed countries such as Australia and the UK. Is this a concept that employers in Asia will warm to and how can this benefit them?

Recognition of prior learning (RPL) is defined by the Australian Qualifications Framework as ‘an assessment process that involves assessment of an individual’s relevant prior learning (including formal, informal and non-formal learning) to determine the credit outcomes of an individual application for credit’.

Asian countries are adopting similar systems. For example, the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) system is designed based on international best practices and tailored to the local context. Employers can benefit from the WSQ system in a number of ways. It benchmarks best practices, improves and develops job descriptions, improves performance management systems and training programmes, establishes clearly defined career paths for employees and guides training needs analysis.

It also facilitates recruiting competent staff who are equipped with industry-specific capabilities and job-specific requirements, and strengthens in-house training capabilities.


The Asian market is in a prime position to showcase itself as a source for quality talent as the region becomes an increasingly important strategic destination for multinational companies looking to expand their global foothold. Although there is no one single definition of quality, cultural awareness coupled with the ability to adapt to new business needs are highly coveted skills amongst employers in today’s globalised economy.

It is therefore imperative that corporations as well as governments in these emerging markets work together to create a conducive environment for continuous learning for professionals; be it in terms of technical competencies or softskills. This is to ensure that Asia remains a stronghold for quality talent and continues to drive business growth at home and attract multinational corporations onto its shores.


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