Look before you leap

As we reflect on another tumultuous year for the Cayman Islands financial services sector, many financial services professionals will be pondering whether to seek a move to higher ground or pastures new in the coming year.  What factors have shaped the employment market in 2010, what lies in store for the coming year, and what advice can we, as recruitment professionals, give to staff in the financial services sector?

Although 2010 saw further losses in the important fund admin sector, CML’s quarterly salary surveys, (compiled from multiple sources including local and international job advertisements as well as interviews with local companies) have revealed some positive trends worthy of note. 

First, the volume of available accounting jobs, surely a bellweather for the financial services sector as a whole, increased 30 per cent between quarters 2 and 3 in 2010.  In fact, our recruiters have reported a steady increase in available jobs throughout the year.  Even more positively, the increase in demand seems to have been matched by a long-awaited, yet modest, general increase in salaries.

Trust, legal support and general admin vacancies were relatively strong after a summer lull, although the evidence suggests most vacancies came about through turnover, not growth.  Growth, preferably in the form of new employers, is desperately needed to mitigate the growing unemployment problem among Caymanians. 

Although we have not as yet included detailed study of Cayman legal vacancies in our quarterly reviews (the data are too sparse to provide a coherent picture of the market), what data exist point to turnover and attrition but not much growth.  Though this may not seem on its face a good omen, it is a step up from most of 2009 when there was only attrition.

Anecdotal evidence suggests most clients have weathered the economic storms of the last 18 months and expect to begin hiring for growth again (with some caveats) in the first two quarters of 2011.

The caveat is that firms continue to be significantly more choosy than they have been in the past, especially at the entry and middle management levels (companies have always been picky at the top level).  That has been reflected in several facets of the recruitment process: more stages in the hiring process; more candidates considered and shortlisted; and longer response times.
So what does 2011 have in store for the financial services job market in Cayman?  More of the same I’m afraid.  The most positive thing that can be said is that it could be a lot worse.

Employers in low-growth market sectors such as funds and captives should brace for an increase in turnover.  Opportunities abroad are slowly becoming more abundant and with in-house promotional opportunities scarce, itchy feet among ambitious staff are inevitable.  It remains to be seen whether we will see a return to the erstwhile traditional second quarter exodus.
For accountants, now, more than ever before, is a time to temper your expectations if you are looking to change career path.  Employers are not in the mood to gamble on professionals without relevant industry experience and changing industry sector could well mean facing a significant cut in pay.  

It will not be newsworthy for us to report that, in the legal sector, relatively new members of the offshore elite appear poised to give the old guard a run for their money in the coming year or two.  That will mean snatching up the best of the available candidates.  In an industry where nearly every professional is a profit centre, pragmatic offshore magic circle clients will always find room for an attorney of outstanding pedigree (to wit, top flight academics with 3-6 years of magic circle or offshore corporate experience).

The best advice for any financial services employee assessing his or her options is this: look before you leap.  Don’t resign on a whim expecting employers to beat a path to your door.  (Don’t laugh, people do).  Take your time, do your research, and look for a line of work that interests you more or has better prospects, preferably in a growing sector, practice area and/or company.  Remember, promotions come from only turnover or growth.  If you are ambitious and your company is not growing, there better be some people above you more frustrated than you are. 

Ambitious Caymanians looking further in the future would be well advised to consider the trust sector (where salaries have increased as a result of modest growth combined with an apparent dearth of local candidates) and avoid HR (where turnover is almost non-existent and growth even more scarce) unless you plan to seek work overseas.

IT is a relatively reliable sector for employment opportunities, particularly popular among the young male demographic.  However, you should be prepared to look abroad for the best training and employment opportunities as there is a lot of local competition for entry level jobs.

If you are one of the many unemployed Caymanians with a background in financial services, our experience suggests the best advice would be to lower your salary expectations, stay busy, and remain positive.  Although employers still have a distinct preference for experienced Caymanians, we have observed some mismatch between the salary levels sought and that being offered.  In the past it was common for employers to come up to meet candidate’s expectations in such circumstances.  Those days are gone.  Better to take the job and renegotiate the package once you have proven your worth.

Although no game-changing government policy initiatives have been announced to date, it is clear that most sectors continue to bud sporadically.   Let us hope that the small changes in the pipeline are sufficient to nurture those buds and in other areas, stop the rot.