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Alibaba’s new Hong Kong hiring strikes fear into the big banks

Chinese internet giant Alibaba isn’t just recruiting on the mainland; it’s now hiring across the board in Hong Kong, according to our analysis of its current vacancies. And that’s got global banks worried as they increasingly compete with the tech firm for candidates.

Alibaba’s Hong Kong openings are still dwarfed by those across the border, but almost all its local roles are in job sectors that banks are also recruiting in. Meanwhile, 60% of its positions are in functions suffering from chronic local talent shortages: technology, legal/compliance, finance, and cyber security, as shown in the table below.

It is in technology that Alibaba, the world’s seventh largest company by market capitalisation, poses the biggest threat to banks’ recruitment and retention plans in Hong Kong. Our survey last week found that Goldman Sachs is currently the most aggressive tech recruiter among US banks in Hong Kong. All of its American and European rivals are also expanding their technology teams in the city, according to HR heads who attended an eFinancialCareers roundtable in Hong Kong earlier this year, several of whom said tech accounted for about half of their hiring.

But the emerging technology skills – in particular AI, machine learning, cloud computer and big data – that banks need in Hong Kong are similar to those that Alibaba is now seeking via its careers website. Alibaba, for example, is currently advertising for a cloud solutions architect (expertise in MySQL, PostgreSQL, NoSQL DB, Hadoop, Spark and machine learning is sought after). The tech titan also wants a Hong Kong-based international data solution consultant to “manage the overall strategy for the creation of innovative big data and AI based data intelligence solutions”.

Western banks typically still have their pick of front-office talent in Hong Kong because Chinese banks are seen as less attractive places to work (not one bank from China featured on our 2018 list of ideal employers in Asia). This is not so in technology, a field in which banks face formidable competition from mainland firms like Tencent and Alibaba, both known for investing billions in leading-edge tech, and attracting strong candidates as a result. Alibaba, China’s largest R&D spender, is developing a plethora of AI-powered products, including City Brain, a cloud-based system which processes city data to reduce traffic congestion.

“Alibaba offers good compensation, benefits, work culture and career progression,” says a senior tech recruiter at a bank, who asked to remain anonymous. “So it needs to be an attractive proposition for their people to join us. Moreover, there has to be something special about our technology – how we’re applying it and what it will do for their skills – to make them move,” she adds.

The decision in September by Alibaba co-founder and executive chairman Jack Ma, China’s richest man, to hand over the reins to CEO Daniel Yong won’t affect the firm’s pulling power among Hong Kong technologists, says Jason Tan, an associate director at recruiters Kelly Services. “Alibaba has been consistently building a very special company culture, which only Tencent – not the banks – can challenge at the moment, at least in Asia,” he adds.

Worryingly for banks in Hong Kong, Alibaba has a track record of hiring from their front-office ranks – a trend which recruiters say is now carrying over into technology. It appointed 20-year Goldman veteran Michael Evans as its president in 2015, and a year later named another ex-Goldmanite, Douglas Feagin, as head of international business for its online finance arm, Ant Financial Services. Several other bankers have also made the move.

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Image credit:  maybefalse, Getty

AUTHORSimon Mortlock Content Manager

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