The business of a secure future
Despite the stereotypes and the occasional negative publicity, the insurance sector continues to be an attractive option for young graduates looking to climb the career ladder and boost their salaries in the shortest time. Luo Weiteng reports.
Being a white-collar professional in a sharp suit may have seemed a distant dream for the likes of Jackie Qian Xiaofeng, as he pored over his books in a gloomy 10-square-meter subdivided unit with barely a cubicle for a bathroom. But graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the young dreamer from Henan province believed his “tough days” in Hong Kong were almost over.
However, he soon came to realize that the degree may have actually been the easiest part. The much tougher hurdle waiting for Hong Kong newbies like him with stars in their eyes was landing a suitable job in a cutthroat market.
For several months, he heard nothing back despite shooting off scores of resumes and finishing his months-long internship at L’Oreal Shanghai.
Amid a sea of rejections, it seemed insurance companies were the only set of employers that cared to respond to the eager job seeker.
While he had never even thought of the insurance industry as a likely option before coming to Hong Kong, Qian came to relish the idea of having a go at such a high-flying sector.
And so in 2012, he joined the army of cross-border dreamers who enter the lucrative insurance industry each year.
The mainland connection to Hong Kong’s insurance sector runs deep. Mainland visitors brought an insurance bonanza to Hong Kong for another bumper year in 2015, being expected to spend a record of more than HK$30 billion on insurance policies in the territory — a sixfold increase from five years ago.
And mainland people have also emerged as the driving force for the city’s growing talent pool of insurance agents.
Though official figures are unavailable, it is believed that nearly 30 percent of mainlanders studying in Hong Kong would go on to make a career in the insurance business.
Qian’s first policy signing, worth as much as HK$400,000, came courtesy of an uncle in his hometown in Henan province, the same uncle who had funded his four-year degree at CUHK.
This policy saw him climb up the ladder at the Hong Kong branch of a UK-based insurance firm and be promoted to team director within just three years.
Back in 2011 and 2012, mainland people accounted for 9 percent and 13 percent, respectively, of new life insurance policies in Hong Kong. That percentage grew to 16 percent in 2014, about the time when Qian set about building his own team.
Sichuan-born Rain Li, with a master’s in Chinese Linguistics from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), was set to be one of the first recruits for Qian’s team at the UK-based insurer.
Li, then 24, admitted being really tempted by the unexpectedly attractive pay that insurance agents in the territory could earn and the possibility of a lavish lifestyle.
Li was told that the very first year at the insurance company, she could earn a monthly basic salary of as much as HK$18,000 with no specific sales target set. In the second year, based on the allocated sales target, she could earn good commissions from every single policy she sold, apart from a hefty salary.
A survey by CT goodjobs, a local employment portal, showed that the median monthly wages of fresh graduates in 2014 was between HK$11,000 and HK$13,750.
And Census and Statistics Department data show that the average monthly wage in the financial and insurance activities sector for the third quarter of 2015 was as high as HK$21,067, against average monthly pay of HK$14,877 among the other industries surveyed in the poll.
What made the job sound even more tempting was the flexible hours and annual leave of up to 20 days, which would free her from being deskbound all day like usual office workers.
Li knew she would be doing better than many fresh graduates from her PolyU program, who were forced to live from paycheck to paycheck and even ask their parents for help.
“Especially for mediocre graduates like me from relatively well-off families and longing to quickly become financially independent, I think working as an insurance agent in Hong Kong is a truly attractive option,” Li said.
However, Li eventually chose a less well-paid position in a local financial public relations firm as her parents were not convinced that being an insurance agent qualified as a decent job.
She also feared that her sales pitches would likely have cost her some friends. “But for greenhorn insurance agents, who can you expect to sell your first policies to but relatives and friends?”
Li’s story throws up the concerns youngsters may have in joining the industry, namely, mediocre talent, stereotypes and lack of entry barriers.
But Steven Wang Chenjie, senior manager at AIA Life Insurance Hong Kong, dismissed all those fears, saying he believes this is a question that is open to discussion.
He said the profession is often believed to have a low barrier to entry, as it may not require a solid financial background or first-hand experience for would-be agents. This wellpaying profession is more of a sales job, placing great emphasis on candidates’ personality and mentality, Wang explained.
The insurance industry, he pointed out, is not short of glowing success stories and jaw-dropping prices of new policies. But not everyone can expect to make their mark and earn easy money here.
Armed with a compelling resume, Wang said he knew exactly what he could expect from his job as an agent, even though he started off with a “let’s give it a go” attitude. After graduating from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 2007, Wang was offered a full scholarship for his master’s degree at Georgia Institute of Technology.
He graduated with straight As and came to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to take his doctorate in Industrial Engineering.
However, after years of research and writing papers, he realized that academic life was not what he wanted. So the would-be PhD finally graduated with an MPhil degree and gave AIA a shot.
“When I graduated, I was already 27 years old. I felt I did not have much time left to start from entry level,” recalled Wang. “So what I expected from my first job was to grow and gain experience within the shortest time, and a corporate ladder that I could climb up quickly and ensure a relatively high income level that others may have to work hard for years to reach. And this is where the insurance business came in.”
However, Wang admitted the profession today is still mired in controversy and misunderstandings, as it is not always an easy task to sell intangible assets to every potential client. But he firmly believes what makes the game really fun is the rising demand for health insurance and asset transfers from the mainland’s booming middle-class and high-networth individuals.
The concept of trust is what really makes the insurance sector well-equipped to compete with high-profile private banks, especially with insurers remodeling themselves as overall financial planners and their asset management role overlapping with private bank services. Wang can hardly wait to take on the challenges and make a difference.
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