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Fintechs struggling to attract graduates, who still favour traditional banks

Financial technology (fintech) companies in Hong Kong say they are seeking to appoint more talented graduates – but the big brand appeal of traditional banks still remains strong for youngsters, and their parents, according to experts.

Arthur Hayes, chief executive of bitcoin derivatives trading company Bitmex, said it has struggled to hire locally for just four places on its new graduate programme, which will focus on financial derivatives, cryptocurrency bitcoin, and blockchain, the technology behind the digital currency.

“The initial goal was we’d like to hire all Hong Kong-based graduates – but if we can’t find the talent that we need, we may need to look to other regions,” Hayes said.

Two candidates have even turned down offers from Bitmex, Hayes said, in one case because of pressure from parents who viewed a job in a traditional financial institution as more stable.

But the former Citibank trader insists fintech start-ups can offer graduates faster career progression than banks.

John Mullally, director of financial services in Hong Kong for recruitment consultants Robert Walters, said the number of graduate roles at banks has fallen by 5 to 10 per cent this year compared to last year, but salaries for junior front office roles have risen 15 per cent.

He said the cuts are less than expected because banks are finding it harder to retain staff, as the typical millennial employee wants more fulfilment from their job, something start-ups claim they can offer.

But while joining a start-up has a certain cachet in the United States or Europe, that sentiment is generally yet to take hold in Hong Kong, Mullally said.

“Despite graduates getting more disenchanted with the whole banking world, a brand name is still a brand name to them and goes a long way, and parental influence plays a part as well,” he said.

Henri Arslanian started teaching Asia’s first fintech class to University of Hong Kong students last year.

He says it is vital to equip today’s graduates with the skills they will need for their careers, especially in finance where technology such as artificial intelligence and blockchain are set to change existing processes.

“I find it unacceptable business schools are not teaching courses on coding, design and creative thinking,” he said.

“That’s because the bankers of tomorrow may not be your MBAs but rather designers and programmers.”

The Canadian lawyer believes the major hurdle for the growth of fintech in Hong Kong is the dearth of successful technology role models in the city, unlike in China, and the power of the tiger mother.

He came across one student who turned down a job with a technology start-up for a role with major banks on pressure from his girlfriend’s mother.

“Parents need to be comfortable with that dim sum conversation on a Sunday, that their kid is not working at a big bank, but a start-up,” he said.

However, there are still some youngsters out there willing to take a chance.

ANX International, a three-year-old fintech company offering services based on blockchain, started a graduate management trainee scheme a year ago and says its efforts to find and hire the best graduates have paid off.

One of its trainees, Martin Leung, joined the company in February and so far is enjoying the chance to work in different areas of the business, as well as the minimal internal bureaucracy.

“I have friends working in the big four banks and they’re really stressed,” Leung said.

“They don’t really like the culture because it’s full of bureaucracy and they have to do whatever their boss or manager tells them.”