What banks in Singapore really think about hiring more Singaporean bankers

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Banks in Singapore are now being forced to provide water-tight justifications and carry out onerous due diligence for every foreign candidate they want to hire, ahead of a new law encouraging them to recruit more locals.

Singapore’s Fair Consideration Framework (FCF), which comes into force on 1 August, requires companies who want to apply for an Employment Pass (work visa for a foreigner) to first advertise the vacancy to Singaporeans on a new government-run online “Jobs Bank” for at least 14 days. Roles paying more than S$144k (US$115k) a year and employers with 25 or fewer staff are exempt.

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More rejections

Banks in Singapore have already noticed an increase this year in the amount of Employment Pass (EP) applications being rejected by the city state’s Ministry of Manpower (MoM), according to the 14 senior HR professionals from local and international financial institutions who attended a recent eFinancialCareers roundtable discussion. The Monetary Authority of Singapore, the country's financial regulator, is also putting pressure on banks to implement the FCF.

Most commonly, EPs are being turned down for more junior applicants whose annual base salaries are below the S$98k threshold needed to obtain an elite “P1-level” pass – the work visa given to most white-collar professionals. “In a couple of recent instances, we’ve been forced to increase the candidate’s pay in order to get them an EP, because below the threshold MoM is less likely to think that their skills are needed in Singapore,” said one of the roundtable delegates, all of whom asked not to be named in this report.

In some cases, however, even P1 applications aren’t being approved – a sign, say roundtable attendees, that the spirit of the FCF is taking affect even before its rules officially become law. “It’s happened to us this year,” said a delegate from an Asia Pacific bank. “We are now appealing – MoM wants us to provide more evidence that we've been looking locally for the candidate and really couldn't find someone.”

More work for HR

While Singapore’s skilled-immigration regime remains liberal and efficient by world standards, the due-diligence work required by HR for each new employment pass is becoming more onerous. “We will all be closely monitoring foreign hires and providing firm justifications to the MoM,” said an HR person from a US investment bank at the Singapore roundtable. “We now have to make sure that locals are in contention for each job; that they’re on the list,” said a representative from a European bank.

An attendee from another American bank added: “The rules are about forcing employers to make decisions – if it’s easier to hire a local, is it really even worth the pain of trying to move someone from overseas?”

Under the FCF, The Ministry of Manpower and other government agencies will review the hiring and career-development practices of employers with a disproportionately low concentration of Singaporeans in professional, managerial and executive roles. Banks are therefore encouraging staff who currently have employment passes to apply for permanent residency and thus not be counted as foreign staff. But roundtable delegates said that obtaining PR status was also becoming more difficult.

The attendees expressed concerns about how the government’s Jobs Bank, administered by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency, will work in practice. Slated for launch by the “middle of this year”, according to the WDA, HR teams have yet to be told how advertising on it will integrate into their in-house IT recruitment systems, such as Taleo and PeopleSoft.

Where it’s hard to hire locals

Despite the rising administrative burden created by the FCF, banks in Singapore will still be hiring foreign candidates this year. “Singapore has comparatively high economic growth, low unemployment and a small population for a big financial centre, so fundamentally the local skill-shortage problem will never be entirely solved,” said a delegate from a global corporate bank. “But the FCF at least makes employers follow good practice by not deliberately overlooking locals.”

Roundtable attendees pointed to a continued need to import talent for finance-tech roles. “In IT, we need business analysts and project managers and it’s challenging to find them locally,” said an HR person from an Asian bank. “We’ve just hired two people in cyber-technology risk and they were both from the US – it’s a niche role,” added his counterpart at a US firm.

As we've reported in the past month, banks also hire from overseas for internal audit and compliance jobs. “About 40% of our applicants still come from abroad,” said a delegate from a US investment firm. “While they are increasingly concerned about the cost of living in Singapore, it’s still a popular destination, and bankers with children prefer Singapore over Hong Kong.”

Wait and see about the FCF

Roundtable attendees said it would take at least six months from the August launch of the FCF to assess its affect on bolstering the recruitment of Singaporean candidates. “We will then have some empirical evidence. If there is evidence of genuine skill shortages in certain job functions, the government may make adjustments to the FCF I think,” said an HR person from a US bank.

Singaporeans based overseas, as we reported in March, are already reaping the rewards of the FCF – they are in demand back home because they bring international experience but don't require work visas. “They are are pure gold for us, but the pool of candidates is very small,” said a delegate from an Asia Pacific bank.

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