IT may come as a surprise to some that there are banks here that continue to hire and expand their headcount despite the rise in digitalisation and consolidation in the sector.
While keeping a tight rein on costs, banks remain a major source of employment in Singapore.
In 2016, financial and insurance services employed 190,700 residents, the highest ever, according to the Department of Statistics. Last year's number of financial sector employees was a big jump of 14 per cent or 23,400 from the 167,300 in 2015, and was, by far, the highest increase among industries.
Standard Chartered Bank in 2016 took on 1,000 new employees, boosting its Singapore staffing to 8,000. Other banks that added new staff include Citi, DBS Bank and Julius Baer.
The strong hiring in the financial and insurance sector is an anomaly as the overall economy remains sluggish. Retrenchments were up last year, reaching their highest level since the global financial crisis in 2009. Unemployment, though low, also crept up to 3 per cent for citizens and permanent residents.
In 2016, redundancies, which have been rising steadily since 2010, hit 19,000 - mainly due to economic restructuring and a slower economy.
At the banks that were hiring, many vacancies were for sales, technology and compliance roles.
StanChart Singapore's more than 1,000 new hires last year were mainly in technology and operations, compliance and frontline relationship managers, said a bank spokeswoman.
The bank's global business is managed out of Singapore, as is its global technology and operations function.
The new hires included 161 frontline staff in retail banking for the Singapore franchise. Around three quarters of this number are in retail sales, the rest in sales support, she said. StanChart Singapore has 17 branches.
The new hires made up a significant portion of the group's additional headcount in 2016. But bigger staffing levels did not result in higher costs; instead, overall expenses fell due to the extra staff being in cheaper locations and a tighter rein on costs such as travel.
The group headcount for the UK-based bank which has the bulk of its business in Asia rose to 86,693 in 2016, from 84,076, an increase of 2,618. Yet, staff costs fell 7 per cent.
The reduction in staff costs were achieved on a few fronts, said the spokeswoman. "We managed to reduce overall staff costs by leveraging the comparative advantages of different markets that we are in, and made some new hires with skills aligned to our business strategy in relatively cheaper locations last year."
Of the 2,618 increase, 1,000 were frontline full time retail banking employees added in India, Singapore and Bangladesh.
In addition, the drop in staff costs were mainly from wages and salaries, share-based payment costs and other staff costs such as travel, she said.
Citi Singapore, which is the largest foreign employer here with some 9,000 people placed about 1,400 positions in 2016. Of this, 800 were new hires and the rest were existing employees being placed into new jobs from within the group.
Said Jorge Osorio, Citi Singapore head of human resources: "Citi is one of the largest banking employers in Singapore with about 9,000 people. Despite market uncertainties, we placed over 1,400 positions in 2016 and expect the trend to continue in 2017. Some of the opportunities are in the area of wealth management, technology, digital and control functions."
According to Q42016 job tech data shared during the recent Financial Services Week organised by Workforce Singapore and e2i, Citi is listed as one of the top three hiring companies, contributing to over 40 per cent of the jobs demand in the financial sector, he said.
Citi is also a sought-after employer for fresh graduates. The bank received close to 5,000 applications from fresh graduates this year for its graduate programmes.
"Citi is often known as the university of banking and we continue to build the next generation of leaders for the financial sector by nurturing talent within the bank and fresh graduates from universities in Singapore," said Mr Osorio.
Every year, Citi hires about 200 fresh graduates and in 2017, it plans to accept about 50 fresh graduates into the highly selective full-time analyst programme which received almost 1,500 applications this year, he said.
Swiss private bank Julius Baer went on an hiring spree last year, taking advantage of the ongoing consolidation in the industry. The group added a net 116 relationship managers worldwide, and chief executive Boris Collardi said in February that the bank was now back in a normalised hiring mode of about 80 RMs per year.
"We took full advantage of the ongoing industry consolidation and competitive dynamics in 2016 by hiring a very substantial number of experienced banking professionals, particularly in Asia," said Torsten Linke, head of private banking South East Asia and branch manager, Singapore, Julius Baer.
The number of full-time employees at a group-wide level at the end of 2016 was just over 6,000, up from just over 5,300 staff at the end of 2015, he said.
The headcount in Singapore makes up more than 10 per cent of the staff that Julius Baer has globally across some 50 locations.
"Also in 2016, we increased our headcount in Singapore by more than 10 per cent, from a year ago," said Mr Linke.
"Our expanding team of relationship managers continue to attract net new money in 2016 against a backdrop of volatile markets," he said. Switzerland's third-biggest private bank had 12 billion Swiss francs (S$17.1 billion) in net new money in 2016, a growth rate of 4 per cent.
Julius Baer is preparing to move to bigger offices as it expands.
"We will relocate from Asia Square to Marina One which allows the advantage of having our teams work together on a single floor of 100,000 square feet," he said. The Marina One premises is 30 per cent larger than its current premises in Asia Square.
Julius Baer's back office support team will continue to be located at Mapletree Business City.
DBS, the largest bank in South-east Asia, ended 2016 with a headcount of 22,194, up from 22,017 previously.
New hires last year came to 4,023 and the number of voluntary attrition was 2,547, according to DBS's annual report. It did not have a geographic breakdown of its workforce.
On its recruitment this year, a spokeswoman said: "In Singapore, some of the areas we will be hiring for in 2017 include retail banking as well as key support functions such as technology, finance, risk and compliance.
"In particular, we are looking for data scientists, user experience designers, app developers as well as people familiar with technologies like cloud computing to support our digital initiatives."
* This article first appeared in The Business Times"