May 11, 2007

Crazy salaries across Asia

Very interesting article from (Hat tip: Shariq) on the talent gap in Asia's financial and IT services industry.

A combination of strong economic growth, corporate ambition and a limited pool of managers and specialists has plunged Asian companies into a battle for top talent, from casinos in Macau gearing up for business to boom towns in resource-rich western Australia desperate to attract mining engineers.

Salaries for top performers are being bid up to unheard of levels. Even Indian software engineers in Silicon Valley are returning home attracted by high ex-pat salary packages and senior positions, as are Chinese and Japanese-born bankers working in London and New York.

Which companies win this war for talent will go a long way to deciding which will succeed in the Asia Pacific region.

The consensus is that recruiting and retaining skilled workers in Asia is harder and more expensive than ever. Headhunters warn that the inability to fill key positions with qualified people, mostly at senior level, is denting the regional expansion plans of many companies.

The struggle to hire qualified staff is most acute in financial services, a sector whose fortunes are closely correlated with the level of growth. Demand for consumer banking in India and China is soaring and investment banks are adding personnel to service the region's emerging acquisitive corporations.

In addition,private equity firms and hedge funds have mushroomed over the past year, pinching scores of the region's top investment bankers along the way, while the region's newly-minted millionaires are demanding world-class wealth management services.

The boom in financial services is also having knock-on effects in connected support industries such as accounting, law and public relations.

A key problem for recruitment is the lack of fungibility of personnel across the different markets of the region, with its varied cultural, political and linguistic traditions. Headhunter Kevin Gibson, managing director of Robert Walters Japan, says: "You can relocate a Mexican to Argentina or an American to the UK. But you can't move a senior manager from China to Japan unless they speak the language and enjoy the culture."

One senior Hong Kong-based executive for a global investment bank describes the situation as "crazy". He said: "Banks are short of good staff all over the world but Asia is the hottest place by far. I have 28-year-olds coming into my office telling me that they are resigning because they have been offered a $1m job." The executive blamed the wage inflation on a combination of factors, including new entrants who pay huge premiums to attract staff, the growth and expansion of hedge funds and private equity firms and the expansion plans of existing players. "It all means that there are too many potential employers chasing too few people," he says.

As well as drawing from the well of investment banks, PE firms expanding in Asia have started to adopt US and European practice by luring senior industry executives. In recent weeks Carlyle Group of the US has poached the regional heads of Coca-Cola and Delphi to oversee the firm's future investments across the consumer and industrial sectors respectively.

The frenzy is thought to have prompted the Singapore government to broker an informal non-poaching agreement that effectively protects two local banks, DBS and OCBC, from aggressive foreign rivals.

In China, analysts describe the talent shortage as "acute". Steve Mullinjer, head of Heidrick & Struggles China practice, says: "There is a paradox of shortage among the plenty." He believes that China requires 75,000 quality people to fill senior vacancies at multinationals and expanding domestic companies but can only supply around 5,000 candidates with suitable experience.

Wage inflation is running so hot that a locally-born general manager for a multinational can earn 20 per cent more than a counterpart in the US "with only 75 per cent of the skills set", he says. "The reality is that executives in China are getting over-titled and overpaid. Underperformers who leave often resurface in jobs earning double the salary."

The talent shortage is also keenly felt in India, especially in the financial services and information technology sectors.

Business is growing so fast that the industry's lobby group has estimated that the Indian IT sector faces a shortfall of 500,000 professionals by 2010 that threatens the country's dominance of global offshore IT services.

Blue chip IT companies are plundering the entire talent pool across industries, stealing civil engineers and graduates from other disciplines and turning them into software engineers. This has left acute shortages in industries such as construction.

Azim Premji, founder chairman of India's Wipro, one of the world's leading IT companies, says: "The multinationals are going berserk and are unnecessarily paying premiums to fill the positions."

The effect on pay rates has been predictable. According to Hewitt Associates, the consultancy, average salary increases in India are running at more than 14 per cent a year, compared with around 8 per cent in China and slightly less in South Korea and the Philippines.

Dinesh Mirchandani, managing director of the India practice of Boyden, a global search firm, said that the annual salary for the typical chief executive of a mid-cap multinational in India, with just $100m sales, has doubled in the past five years to $250,000. He says: "At senior levels, the pay gap between those based in India and those elsewhere has narrowed dramatically. I even have an Indian national chief operating officer in a multinational here who is earning more than his Dubai-based boss." Mr Mirchandani cites BP, Citibank and PepsiCo as multinationals that have prospered because they recruited and retained staff successfully by introducing favourable human resource policies.

The recruitment market in Japan has tended to march to its own beat. However, the country's economic recovery has created bottlenecks in sectors such as financial services, retail and pharmaceutical, while sectors such as precision engineering have been boosted by insatiable demand from China for their products. The talent war even has its plus points. One US investment banking executive working in Asia says that the situation has made it easier to get rid of under-performing staff.

Seems like Asia is the place to be ! No wonder that lots of US and UK managers now see an Asia stint as a 'must do' on their resumes.