We’re facing a “troubling” tech talent shortage in Asia, says IT banking boss

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Banks in Hong Kong are struggling to recruit for technology jobs because the city's talent pool is too thin, says a leading banking tech boss.

“Over the past two years tech has become more important to banks in Hong Kong and more fintech start-ups are launching here, but we don’t have enough technologists in the city so we suddenly find ourselves in trouble,” says Arthur Wong, head of information technology at China Construction Bank (Asia).

While the government and local universities are now focusing on increasing the supply of computer science graduates, this has yet to significantly dent the skill shortage.

“Young people in Hong Kong have always gravitated towards jobs where they can make fast money – medicine, law, trading – and traditionally technology hasn’t been on this list,” says Wong, speaking to eFinancialCareers yesterday on the sidelines of the FST Media Future of Banking conference in Hong Kong.

“Technology careers have been comparatively unappealing in the recent past because the big tech companies – the IBMs, the Oracles – really only had sales offices here, and the banks were just consumers of tech. Having tech people based in Hong Kong wasn’t as crucial as it is now,” says Wong.

Plugging talent gaps by recruiting from mainland China isn’t as straightforward as it may seem, he adds.

“Banks in Hong Kong do hire from southern China, including from Shenzhen. But Tencent and many other Chinese tech companies operate there and pay good money, so it’s difficult to convince people to move,” says Wong. “In China you often get larger projects to work on too.”

Wong says China Construction Bank’s will be increasing its headcount in anti-money laundering technology and cyber security over the next year.

“In AML technology, our jobs are mainly in transaction monitoring and KYC. In cyber security, we need people to work on new policies and then people to implement their changes.”

However, even by current Hong Kong banking-tech standards, both functions are “extremely” short of candidates, says Wong.

“It’s difficult to find and retain people – they’re expensive and all banks and the Big Four in Hong Kong want them.”

Rather than taking the “quick approach” to its technology recruitment – paying above the odds – CCB is beefing up its training programmes in a bid to convert generalist IT staff into specialist jobs.

“We’re transitioning IT infrastructure guys, for example, into AML and security roles,” says Wong. “A lot of them enjoy this because it’s a good thing to add to their CVs and it takes them into a more interesting job.”

“We usually target younger people for retraining – those who we think are more outgoing and open to change.”

Still, Wong admits that working in a new function “can be difficult”. “It’s more challenging in cyber security because it’s more technical than AML – for example, in terms of building firewalls and understanding new HKMA requirements.”

As CCB and other banks hire more technologists in Hong Kong, Wong says he’d encourage more computer science graduates to enter the banking sector.

“It’s a great time to join the industry because it will expand over the next few years. Regulatory and security related jobs will just keep on growing, as will mobile-only development. And AI and natural-language processing will become much more advanced, especially in wealth management.”

Image credit: HannesThirion, Getty

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