Headhunters in Asia have repeatedly told us that compliance and anti-money laundering continue to experience hiring, in spite of the quieter employment market. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, there’s been a surge of interest from people, both in banking and in other industries, who want to obtain compliance qualifications.
A mobile job market
The Singapore compliance workforce is incredibly mobile. In general, candidates here are more mobile and fluid than in many other jurisdictions. Looking at CVs I come across, I see many who regularly switch roles after 18 months to two years on the job. In fact, staying in a position for more than three years is considered fairly long.
Given that most people change employers for an increased pay this has the effect of driving up salaries generally; but that’s not sustainable. At some point, and there is evidence to suggest that we are close to that point now, employers will increasingly consider cheaper new entrants, with a view to providing appropriate training.
Why so sought after?
In compliance it’s hard to be effective from day one because the individual needs to clearly understand the ethos, the philosophy, the policies and procedures and how the various parts of the organisation fit together before implementing changes. In my opinion, failing to do so can have adverse results, perhaps even unfixing something that already works.
Compliance sits at the heart of any financial institution; it touches pretty much every part of the business. This gives you great exposure because you have to be aware of what everyone else is doing. And while compliance is a full career track in itself, it also allows you to branch in from, and out to, related fields like risk or audit, or other areas like sales and marketing.
The job is also fairly transportable. Many of the skills and attributes required are not affected by geography. Indeed in larger firms, individuals are responsible for compliance at regional and global levels. A good compliance officer in Singapore can do a similar job in Hong Kong or any other major jurisdiction. It won’t be a massive knowledge leap, though they would need to pick up the local rules, regulations and industry practices. We do see people from other jurisdictions coming into Singapore and vice versa, it’s a global industry.
The need for new starters
I first started in the industry in 1988, and back then the role of compliance officer was typically given to a senior legal person in the firm, so compliance gained a reputation for being a role for an older person. However, things have shifted dramatically since those days and that’s far from the current position. As an industry it is extremely dynamic and continually evolving and so it needs people who can match the pace.
Everyone wants in, even cabbies
Demand for compliance and anti-money laundering professionals has certainly grown in the financial services sector and is seen as being nearly recession-proof by some. Institutions are increasingly under pressure to make sure that these functions are dutifully done and if Singapore is to maintain its reputation as a world class financial centre, it needs to be seen as compliant. Given the demand, it’s definitely harder to justify the retrenchment of these professionals.
We’re currently in our ninth intake (there are two intakes each year) since 2008 and we have trained around 1,000 people in Singapore. The numbers for each intake have risen sharply over the years. When we first started there were 65 students, now on average we have about 125.
ICA is appointed by the Monetary Authority of Singapore as lead training provider in six Singapore compliance job families. Working with our partners, the Workforce Development Agency and the Institute of Banking and Finance, the Singapore specific diploma programmes are mapped to the Financial Industry Competency Standards, and are also mapped to university standards, in association with the University of Manchester Business School. The courses typically take about 10 months and about 90 per cent of our students are locals, with another 10 per cent made up of expats mainly from the US, Europe and Australia.
There has been a change in the demographic of our student make-up over the years. When we first started in Singapore, about 99 per cent of our students came from the banking industry, but today we get a number of people from other areas such as technology, law enforcement, customs, pharmaceutical and oil and gas firms. We even had a student who was a taxi driver, there’s definitely a wide mix.
Of course, the bulk of our students are still from financial institutions, including professionals from wholesale and retail banks, securities firms, wealth managers, fund managers and the insurance sector. We also have undergraduates enrolled in our courses.
Considering a mid-career change?
We do see mid-career people switching into compliance, particularly those in legal, risk and audit. Having interviewed many people in my career, I take the view that when a candidate goes out of their way to acquire a vocational qualification that tells me a lot about the person’s attitude. Having qualifications is definitely a door opener, but of course after that it’s up to you to impress the employer.
A professional workforce
I have always maintained that compliance officers should be seen as professionals, in the same way that accountants, lawyers and doctors are. No one can wake up one day and become a brain surgeon; it takes years of appropriate training and qualifications. For many years this aspect was missing but now part of the role of the ICA is to provide benchmarked, validated study and assessment to further the claim of compliance officers.
Increasingly there seems to be a trend where compliance professionals are getting jobs, promotions and salary increases because they have got the related qualifications. Some employers are looking at the ICA diploma as a prerequisite for compliance jobs.