IT pro or manager? Go East, young man. But don't expect servants
Plenty of scope, but cushy ex-pat days are done
Analysis Ambitious Britishers have long looked abroad to make their fortunes, and the rise of China and its satellites is drawing a new generation ready to swap family ties and predictable working hours for a slice of the new Wild East.
But while the booming Asian economy is generating a raft of new job opportunities for senior IT professionals in both large multinationals and domestic firms looking to internationalise, recruiters warn that the days of the fat ex-pat relocation package are numbered.
Shiny, shiny: Esplanade drive in Singapore. Pic credit: Clarence Loi 
The Register spoke to a range of experts about the IT jobs market in China, Hong Kong and Singapore – currently the most attractive ones for ex-pats – and the omens for 2012 are generally pretty good, with recruiters reacting positively to signs of greater economic stability in Europe and the US.
Financial services, e-commerce and hi-tech manufacturing industries, among others, are all on the look-out for international IT professionals with niche skills in areas such as cloud computing, as well as the perennial favourites of business-focused and communications skills and SAP/ERP expertise.
Recruitment firm Robert Half says that CTOs and CIOs in Hong Kong are expected to be the most active in their hiring plans with 28 per cent of those it surveyed planning to increase their permanent IT headcount in the first half of 2012. Singapore follows, with 22 per cent looking to increase IT headcount, followed by 14 per cent in Japan.
IT risk and compliance, IT audit, .Net and Java developers and systems architects with good business skills are also in high demand, it said. Michael Page International, meanwhile, said that it expects to see 400-500 new IT jobs in the first quarter across all salary ranges in Singapore.
China’s booming economy is also fuelling demand. Not only is it growing at such a pace that it can’t provide enough skilled IT professionals domestically to fill all of the roles on offer but home-grown companies are increasingly looking to internationalise their operations, providing ex-pats in the People’s Republic and Hong Kong with new opportunities, according to Andy Bentote, Michael Page International's MD for northern and eastern China.
However with such an embarrassment of riches when it comes to science and technology graduates coming out of university in the region, the sweet spot for ex-pat pros is generally going to be in IT manager and above roles.
“It’s not that China isn’t creating quality candidates; it’s that it’s not generating enough to keep up with the pace of growth of the country,” Bentote told The Reg.
“Multinationals are trying to localise as much as possible. But while that is true below manager level, they will have quite a lot of foreigners in these senior positions. They have the skills to do it and also there are quite a lot who have been brought in to bring someone local through.”
He explained that Michael Page is increasingly being asked by domestic Chinese companies to source ex-pats to help them internationalise, a trend he said is likely to develop “more and more”.
Certainly big name tech firms such as Baidu, Huawei and ZTE are leading the charge when it comes to spreading their wings and expanding out of China. But as more follow, by the same rationale, so will the job opportunities for ex-pats – at least until they have trained up the locals.
“There’s a huge appetite for learning here so if you can demonstrate you can teach, and give that to people then you’ve got an even better chance,” said Bentote.
According to Michael Page’s recently released Salary & Employment Forecast (PDF)  for 2012, senior IT managerial roles are increasingly appearing in financial services and commercial companies headquartering in the economic hub of Shanghai, while Shenzhen is a growing centre for telecoms, hardware and software companies.
However, Bentote also had a word or two of caution for ex-pat IT pros with itchy feet: there won’t be a job in China for you unless you have either Mandarin skills or some experience of working in the country, and ideally both.
Fruits of the Empire
English is the only language that is necessary for Hong Kong IT pros (though most locals speak Cantonese), but if you're heading for the mainland, you'd better brush up on your Mandarin. Pic credit: Dieter Vander Velpen 
“It’s very hard to move over here at that level if you’re changing companies,” he added. “You might have the management and technical skills but do you have the Chinese skills and do you understand the culture of the company?”
Over in Singapore and HK there are not the same language imperatives, although it can still be tricky to pick up a job if an internal transfer is not an option, according to Michael Page MD for SE Asia, Andrew Norton.
“Realistically, most western ex-pats who find IT roles in Singapore follow one of two routes. Either they transfer internally within their own company or they relocate to Singapore first then find a role once settled here,” he told The Reg.
“There is reluctance within the market to hire candidates who have no ties to Singapore or are not currently settled here. For certain niche roles, where particular skill sets are lacking in Singapore or the region, they do consider relocating international candidates.”
Norton added that the days of the lucrative ex-pat relocation package are over, with salaries typically lower than in the UK, though take-home pay will be on a par, given the generally lower local tax rates.
Despite this, though, IT pros can expect healthy annual salary increases of 10 to 15 per cent on average in China and 3 to 6 per cent in Hong Kong this year, not taking into account inflation or promotions, according to Michael Page's estimates.
The Hong Kong-based CIO of China Construction Bank, Michael Leung, told The Register that he is definitely employing fewer ex-pats than he may have done five years ago, given the strong numbers of local candidates coming through.
He mentioned several key trends which IT managers need to consider in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) in order to make themselves as employable as possible.
The first is localisation – software and systems bought in from the west need to be localised for regulatory and cultural reasons, especially in the banking sector.
The second, chiming with what Michael Page’s northern and eastern China MD said, is that there is a huge appetite from mainland Chinese firms to internationalise and for this they need people with English language skills and experience of working in non-Chinese markets to help them globalise their services.
Leung also pointed to Hong Kong as a region which increasingly is seeking to differentiate itself from every other Chinese city by becoming a multimedia/infotainment centre.
“How can Hong Kong differentiate itself – because speaking English is not enough?” he said. “Hong Kong can do content in any shape or form: this is differentiation riding on the back of our different political system.”
Leung was at pains to point out that, in senior roles at least, English is the only language that is necessary for Hong Kong IT pros, being the lingua franca of business in the ex-British colony.
The same appears true in Singapore, although experts warned that some local language skills can help overcome any cultural barriers which may impede progress in the role.
“It is essential to thoroughly review all job descriptions to ensure individual skill sets are matched to potential roles,” said Michael Page’s SE Asia MD.
“Communicating internally with colleagues as well as with external clients can be challenging in Asia, and additional local language skills are definitely an advantage,” said Norton.
The bigger picture
Robert Half international’s Asian MD, Tim Hird, was also keen to stress that IT pros looking for some adventure in southeast Asia really need to think about the bigger picture, such as their quality of life in the prospective new land, how good the schools are, and if there are visa restrictions for spouses.
“Even if relocating is a smart move professionally, you should also consider if it is right for you personally. Does relocating come at a good time for you and your family? Are family members going to enjoy the new location, or will they resent losing friends, changing schools or having to find new employment? Can you afford the move and the cost of living in the new location?” he asked.
“Employees also need to work at familiarising or preparing themselves for a different working culture in a new market. For example, they should research and read up on the rules and regulations of the specific market they want to move into. They also need to demonstrate the ability to transfer existing IT technical and business skill sets and experiences across different markets.”
However, for those that do want to take the plunge, the experience can offer much more than a few stories to tell down the pub and a bucketful of cash.
“Gaining invaluable experience working in the global marketplace will hold an employee in good stead in his or her long-term career progression and when they return to their country,” said Hird. ®