Talent Acquisition

Singapore’s Labour Crunch

The city-state is experiencing dynamic talent trends.

By Michael Switow

Singapore is facing a manpower and talent crunch, as its increasing popularity as a regional hub converges with government policies intended to encourage local hiring. This shortage is being exacerbated by the COVID economy and travel restrictions put in place to contain the pandemic.

Since the early 2000s, Singapore has actively recruited multinational companies to set up regional offices in the city-state. Offering funding and incentives, Singapore has promoted itself, in turn, as a leading hub of infocomm, media, biomedical hub, speciality chemicals, and more.   Many international firms have viewed Singapore as a cost-effective, stable alternative to Hong Kong, not to mention the most sensible choice for accessing markets across southeast Asia.

Singapore’s popularity has accelerated in recent months. A spate of high-profile Chinese tech companies, including ByteDance and Tencent, have announced plans to set up shop in the city.  Local tech start-up SEA, which has quickly become the region’s most valuable listed company with a market capitalisation of more than $120 billion, is expanding too.

“We’ve been really busy and that’s a sign of momentum picking up,” says Robert Walters’ Regional Client Development Director for Asia Joanne Chua.  “In the last three weeks, we have seen, specifically in Singapore, an increase in job roles that have been outsourced to agencies.”

Much of this activity is to replace existing talent, Chua notes, as opposed to filling new roles. In a typical year, professionals in the city are more likely to shift companies after Chinese New Year when they receive their bonuses. This year, though, with bonuses being slashed or eliminated altogether, candidates are resigning earlier.

Multinational corporations and Singaporean firms alike are increasingly striving to fill top positions locally. Whilst expatriate hires have been on the decline for some time, as companies seek to contain costs, the pandemic has made it more difficult to fly people in and out of the country.

Demand for talent is most acute in the tech sector, and for roles that require technical acumen in non-tech firms. For example, medical device companies looking to innovate and digitalise are “fishing from the same pool,” as big-name newcomers like Alibaba, Chua says.

Amongst the roles in high demand, according to a recent report by Hays, are experts in the cybersecurity, user interface (UI) and experience (UX), and financial compliance. UI and UX professionals are expected to have an understanding of how to integrate the latest advancements in voice design and virtual reality into mobile and other online platforms. The talent deficit in the realm of cybersecurity, meanwhile, is encouraging some professionals to make a mid-career switch.

The Singapore government is trying to address the shortage of local tech talent. In January, it launched a new “Tech.Pass” visa for up to 500 “tech entrepreneurs, leaders and technical experts.” Unlike most Singapore employment visas, these passes are tied to individuals, not a specific company, which means the holders can work independently or switch employers. The “Tech.Pass” builds on an earlier initiative called “Tech@SG” by Singapore’s Economic Development Board to fast-track tech visas for fast-growing digital start-ups.

Other government policies have reduced the flow of labour from overseas, though. Faced with grassroots concerns over competition for jobs and the number of foreigners living in the city, Singapore’s government tightened requirements for work visas last year. It raised the minimum salary requirements that firms must pay foreigners employed in the city, affecting professionals, and reduced the percentage of foreign labour that companies can employ, impacting manpower.

“The quotas are a nightmare,” says X-Inc Founder Nichol Ng, whose food distribution business is currently hiring for more than 20 roles. “The manpower crunch is worse now than pre-COVID.”

Approximately one million Malaysians work in Singapore. Prior to the pandemic, many commuted daily across the border. But since the border was largely shut last year, many Malaysians working in the city returned home and did not return. Like other international arrivals, those who do wish to return must go through a two-week, S$2,000 quarantine.

With tighter quotas, X-Inc needs to fill both new positions and those vacated by Malaysians with local hires. Ng’s solution is to revamp the roles and titles at X-Inc to attract younger Singaporeans. For example, drivers are “logistics executives” who are trained in multiple areas so that they have a career path in the company.

“We are pivoting fast,” she says. “Every hire needs to be well-rounded and multi-trained, so that we can redeploy them easily into different vocations whenever required.”

Tags: Talent Acquisition

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