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Good Fortune Does not Always Last Forever

For over a decade, young accountants have been able to pick and choose from the best job offers available. The hardest choice was whether to chose a career in professional practice or in other financial areas, such as banking or the civil service. Both, led graduates along a golden career path.

Accountancy courses offered by Hong Kong's tertiary institutions base their success on the number of Big Six job offers secured by their graduates. The high quality undergraduates these courses have attracted also lured large commercial and industrial corporations, and government departments such as the Inland Revenue Department to join the recruitment hunt for this limited pool of talented youngsters.

The result was that medium and smaller firms had to wait around, eager to snatch up the occasional graduates who had chosen less certain career paths (unlike that offered to them by the big firms) with smaller firms. A choice that could, nonetheless, provide a career as exciting and potentially rewarding.

Demand was strong and ever growing. While young people in many other developed countries suffered from the effects of massive unemployment, it was a far cry from the booming demand experienced by those working within Hong Kong's accountancy field.

The HKSA's findings in the late 1980s and early 1990s confirmed this general feeling of optimism. With the rapidly expanding China market in sight, most accounting firms and business corporations predicted increasing demand for young accountants. We were right then - just look at the increase in the number of students and young accountants who joined the HKSA in the past 10 years. However, good fortune does not always last forever.

Even before the sudden change in Hong Kong's economic climate late last year, there were already sure signs of a graduate slow down in the demand for graduates. Many of the numerous students and young accountants I came into contact with in the past two years also sensed that the major professional accountancy firms were implementing more cautions recruitment policies. In addressing their concerns, I identified a number of changing market influences that graduates need to be aware of:

- The China market - penetration of the China market by Hong Kong firms during the formative years was staffed almost exclusively by Hong Kong-trained personnel. However, as China quickly responded to its new economic situation, we have seen an increase in the number of qualified and better-trained graduates from China's top universities who are capable and willing to work for much lower salaries. Understandable, China, initial reaction to the rapid arrival of outside accounting firms and financial institutions was to protect its own financial and accounting industries. The result was that access to the China market did not develop as quickly as many firms originally predicted. Furthermore, there has been a stronger emphasis on on-site recruitment and training in China to control long-term costs, causing demand for Hong Kong groomed accountants to ease off.
- Local Supply - early predictions of a major shortage in the supply of accountants prompted the HKSA to send lobbyists, including myself, to prompt the Government and tertiary institutions to respond The response we obtained was impressive and swift, resulting in a dramatic improvement in the number of course places, as well as in their quality and variety. These courses have served us well - the staff shortage might have been unbearable otherwise. However, as growth in supply has finally out-paced the graduate dwindling demand, newcomers may find the new equilibrium less favourable; and
- Overseas supply - the Hong Kong dollars' stable currency value; the increasing number of youths seeking education overseas; poor job opportunities in many developed countries where there young people completed their education; attractive salaries; and continuous efforts made by international firms to recruit from abroad, all contributed to the significant number of overseas graduates coming to Hong Kong to seek a career in accountancy and finance. This trend is likely to continue as overseas graduates are in many way less demanding and more flexible in their training requirements, and in their ability to fit into a firm's recruitment timetable.

Despite these increased challenges now facing our young accountants, the overt signs are that accountancy is still the chosen career for a growing number of aspiring youngsters. Ironically, at a time when the worldwide economic recession has hit Hong Kong hard and many are jobless, even more students are choosing accountancy courses as their number one choice.

In fact, it is now known that this year many of Hong Kong's best graduates chose accountancy, ahead of medicine, law and engineering, ahead that they needed better matriculation results than ever to ensure a confirmed place on an accountancy degree course.

As I explained in my previous article, a career in accountancy is still very much viewed as sure bet, especially as the job opportunities in other fields have become relatively scarce by comparison. As a result, young accountants may face greater competition for jobs; less choice; and less attractive salaries compared to those of their senior. However, good jobs are still available, ready to be grabbed, which is not the case for many other traditionally prestigious occupations struck by the effects of a serious economic recession. We must still count ourselves luckier than most! As your LegCo representative, I am more concerned with the growing trend of firms replacing senior accountants with less costly juniors. In the hope of increasing overall job opportunities for accountants, I have already submitted several written questions to LegCo, urging the Government to speed up the privatisation of its insolvency practices, and to increase its efforts in promoting our financial services overseas. At the time of writing this article, I was actually in London visiting the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office to review its efforts made in this regard.

I am also spearheading the campaign to increase the international standing of the HKSA's professional qualification by meeting with leading overseas accounting bodies. By enhancing its international recognition, I hope that the HKSA membership will maintain its leading edge in this increasingly competitive world.

On an even broader front, I am keeping a vigilant eye on the Government's economic policies which will hopefully get Hong Kong back on its feet as quickly as humanly possible. There is no denying that we are going through tough times. But I believe that accountants are well trained and versatile, with the necessary strengths and experiences to find many ways to earn a living. Many of you might even find ways to prosper, where others could only struggle to survive. I trust that you will find the necessary inner strength to work through it and to take it 'all' in you stride.

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