Despite efforts to boost the number of locals with skills which are in high demand, the need is still outstripping supply, so companies have to turn to foreigners to fill some of these positions.
Experts said this is especially so in niche technology areas such as fintech, biotech, robotics software engineering or specialised applications of machine learning. Other areas foreigners feature more prominently are in jobs involving a foreign firm’s proprietary technology, or senior business leadership in foreign multinational companies.
Earlier this month, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing told Parliament the government will continue to grow the economy and attract investments to create more good jobs for Singaporeans, while devoting resources to upgrade them so that they can stay relevant and move into higher paying jobs.
“MTI and the economic agencies will watch over the enterprises to get them to train up and groom Singaporeans as part of their commitment to Singapore,” he said.
Singaporean employment in 23 key industries grew by 39,300 between 2015 and 2018, Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad told Parliament earlier this month.
Employment of permanent residents in those industries grew by 8,600, while foreign employment fell by 28,500.
Experts said the shortfall of local talent is partly because Singapore does not have a large population, and it takes time to train people.
“Singapore has a very small workforce size, and this makes it difficult to meet the breadth and depth of skills that are required for an advanced economy,” said former Nominated member of Parliament Randolph Tan, an associate professor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
He added that while there are persistent shortages in some areas, training such a small number of workers in specialised niche areas becomes expensive due to the lack of economies of scale.
‘More than our fair share’
Linda Teo, country manager for recruitment firm Manpower Group Singapore, said employers can sometimes be fixated on hiring people who already have the relevant skillsets, rather than developing them.
Institute for Human Resource Professionals CEO Mayank Parekh said jobs related to proprietary technology that foreign companies bring in to regional operations in Singapore may need to be done by foreigners first.
The small labour pool is why it is not common to find Singaporean company leaders in global firms, said Economic Development Board managing director Chng Kai Fong.
Though he noted that several local firms which have become multinational are headed by Singaporeans.
“What we want is more than our fair share . . . There will naturally be a glass ceiling because most companies will want their own nationalities at the top,” he said.
This is why the strategy is to create opportunities for Singaporeans to take on bigger jobs in multinationals, while growing more local companies to take on a global scale, he said.
“We need international experience, experience operating in big markets, growing markets, in cross-cultural teams.
“Maybe our culture also needs to be more open, and we need to dare to speak out and have our point of view,” he added.
The government started programmes such as the Global Innovation Alliance – a global network allowing Singaporeans and businesses to gain overseas experience, connect, and collaborate with their overseas counterparts – and the SkillsFuture Leadership Development Initiative, which aims to expand the skills of potential leaders for global roles.
Some Singaporean managing directors also agreed that for those seeking leadership roles, international exposure and openness to lifelong learning are key.
Goh Jong-Aik, managing director of Soitec Microelectronics Singapore, started working in the semiconductor industry after graduating from university, and joined Soitec in 2007 when it started work on a new plant in Singapore.
He said it is important that he is aligned with the values and goals of the company, a French firm that manufactures semiconductor materials, and advised others to leverage on the opportunities brought about by Singapore’s globalised status.
Logistics firm DHL Express Singapore managing director and senior vice-president Christopher Ong said he joined DHL in 2006 in a regional business development role, later becoming country manager for Vietnam in 2011, and managing director for Malaysia and Brunei in 2014. He spent seven years abroad in total for the latter two roles.
“I wouldn’t be in my position today if I didn’t take the chance to leave Singapore in 2011,” he said.
Gaining exposure to different markets will go a long way in giving Singaporeans a leg-up in the competition for top posts, he added.
“The ability to take international business practices and translate it into something that can be understood and executed locally is what can make Singaporeans highly sought after.”
THE STRAITS TIMES (SINGAPORE)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK