With the labour market tightening, companies and governments are developing innovative schemes to entice a key resource into their workforces – returning professionals who have taken a break from their careers.

Through its Return to Work 2018 programme, Morgan Stanley aims to lure such “experienced” workers to restart their careers as employees at the global financial firm through a 12-week paid internship in its Hong Kong offices.

The scheme allows managers to pick promising talent by matching the interns with senior executives and teams across the business from February to May. Numbers, however, are limited: since its inception in 2014, some 2,000 people have applied for the scheme across Asia, of which 40 undertook internships and 20 became full-time employees at Morgan Stanley.

Multinational banks have been quick to follow suit. International banking group BNP Paribas is running a similar returnship programme this year in its Hong Kong offices. Getting staff back to work through these schemes is an urgent priority in Hong Kong, where a shortage of skilled staff has pushed up salaries, threatening the city’s competitiveness as a hub for financial and legal services.

A survey from recruiter Hays, published in February, suggested 91 per cent of businesses in Hong Kong expected skills shortages to impact on their operations, while 64 per cent of employees expected to change jobs soon. And Hong Kong is not in a vacuum: enticing foreign talent into the white collar workforce has been a priority for the region and in particular Singapore, which competes with HK to attract top talent.

Yet a culture of long working hours in Hong Kong is a worry and a turnoff for some would-be returners who are raising children. That is the view of a US corporate lawyer based in Hong Kong with a husband working at a British hedge fund. She is looked to re-enter the workforce on a part-time basis while caring for two children. “There’s an expectation of having to work late and on Saturdays that just wouldn’t work… there are more fundamental cultural things that would have to change, especially at Hong Kong-owned companies, before return to work could work for a mother,” said the lawyer, who requested anonymity.

While corporations have taken the lead in Hong Kong, it is the government-affiliated National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) which has come up with Singapore’s answer: the Returners Programme, which brings executives and technicians back to the workforce through paid “job trials”. It is a pilot programme which has the backing of the city state’s government.

The programme appears to be popular among some would-be applicants. “In Singapore, more people want to change jobs and lifestyles but there’s a lot less entrepreneurship here compared to the west,” said Larissa Lau, a local executive who worked as a sales and marketing manager for a leading Middle Eastern airline for a decade before leaving her job for a career break and foreign travel. Back in Singapore after five years off work and having turned 40, Lau said she believed the low level of social support or welfare meant she would be compelled to return to work in a formal office role rather than seek self-employment.

“There is little innovation in Singapore – that’s why everyone either works for a corporation or for the government, even though government keeps talking about making an economy of entrepreneurs,” said Lau.

The fact that the average local pension is less than 20 per cent of the average wage – low for the region (in Hong Kong it is closer to 40 per cent according to OECD data) – also means Singaporeans are likely to prize job security and return to work, added Lau.

While return to work schemes have also been rolled out by multinational banks in Hong Kong and Singapore, with some success, the state-dominated nature of financial services in mainland China means they have had little impact there. Foreign banks have just a 3 per cent market share according to the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, in a market dominated by major local players.

Ageism and the impact of early retirement schemes make return to work difficult in China, according to a recently retired bank official. A mid-level employee of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) in Hangzhou city, Chen Siyun retired recently at 55 and has no intention of returning to work.

“I would feel silly among younger staff. It’s not common to see older staff in frontline positions as the bank also seeks to give an image of youth to customers, even though older staff could bring a lot of knowledge to these roles,” he explained. A pension of almost RMB3,500 (US$529) per month – 63 per cent of his salary at retirement – and an unmortgaged apartment in one of China’s wealthier cities is sufficient, said Chen.

Parents who leave on maternity or paternity leave, meanwhile, are opting for plentiful opportunities in the private sector rather than return to their desks in the mainland Chinese financial sector. That’s the case for Zou Yanli, a mother of one who left China Life, the dominant player in China’s insurance market, when she had her daughter seven years ago.

Rather than return to her role in the risk department at China Life, she opted to run an online cosmetics and health foods business from her apartment in Qingdao city, on the country’s east coast. “There’s been no calls, there is no culture of keeping in touch and nurturing old staff,” said Zou, who says she earns 40 per cent more in an average month than she made previously by marketing products imported from the US.

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