Focus on grooming and training local talent

(From left) GlaxoSmithKline staff members, Mr Chong Kai Hau, 41, production manager; Mr Selvaraju Murugayen, 54, senior operations technician; and Mr Lim Hock Heng, vice-president and site director in a site learning zone at GSK, where employees can
(From left) GlaxoSmithKline staff members, Mr Chong Kai Hau, 41, production manager; Mr Selvaraju Murugayen, 54, senior operations technician; and Mr Lim Hock Heng, vice-president and site director in a site learning zone at GSK, where employees can attend lessons and undergo training in a classroom environment with tools and equipment for practical demonstrations.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Xin Yun talks to GlaxoSmithKline in the third of a four-part editorial project, brought to you by the Manpower Ministry, to spotlight the human resource practices companies have put in place to groom a globally competitive workforce.

Holding up two fingers for emphasis, Mr Lim Hock Heng, site director at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), describes the industry back then.

"In the 1970s there was only one such firm, then another in the 1980s - both were GSK. The only way to learn was through the GSK system, otherwise we wouldn't be here today," says Mr Lim, 55.

The early years and a willingness to transfer specialised skills to Singaporeans were crucial in shaping GSK Singapore's human resource practices. Local site leaders were first recruited outside, from the chemical or gas sectors, for instance.

"A lot of experience was brought in from Britain, then transferred to the locals who were also sent to our sister company in Britain. We gradually developed our own competencies and HR programmes," he says.

"In the old days, even capital construction engineering work required contractors from Britain. We now manage our own capital projects." It has 900 staff across three facilities in Jurong, Quality Road and Tuas, and 700 in the corporate and commercial office.

The previous site director, Dr Alan Catterall, was a firm believer in having local talent run the business, he adds. Mr Lim joined GSK as a production engineer in 1992 and learnt from his British predecessor. He oversees the Jurong and Quality Road plants.

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"We were recruited through headhunters, and learnt on the job and from our seniors. Once (it was) proven you could do it, you were given more responsibility," he says.

Institute for Human Resource Professionals (IHRP) deputy chief executive Selena Huynh says GSK's commitment to grooming local talent as part of its business strategy is progressive.

She notes that "the culture of learning from foreign senior management encourages growth and diversity of thought". Around 500 GSK workers here - about 90 per cent - are local.

That mindset has since changed at GSK - part of the Human Capital Partnership Programme - with an emphasis on solving problems.

Mr Lim notes: "Young graduates are more knowledgeable... When we started work, we didn't know the pharmaceutical industry. These days, they are introduced to a real environment, and know their job expectations and career opportunities. This higher awareness means ensuring jobs fulfil aspirations."

GSK also brings older workers on board as regulations, training requirements and technology constantly change. He says: "Each expansion phase of our footprint here comes with new technology and products. That's an opportunity for existing employees to be seconded to new projects so they learn new technology, among other things."

The firm adopts Japanese concepts to fine-tune processes and reduce waste. It has played a part in helping employees, including older workers, face problems.

SUCCESSION IS KEY TO LONGEVITY

"We identify a successor for each key function. They can be 'ready now','ready soon' or 'ready later'. For each person, we study their training needs to prepare them for the next level," adds Mr Lim.

GSK also invests early in people to build a robust pool of talent for the industry. In the past three years, it has offered more than 250 internship positions to undergraduates from local universities, and students from polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education.

It also has an annual outreach programme for secondary schools and junior colleges in the western part of Singapore, and a working partnership with River Valley High School "to inspire students to pursue the science and engineering academic track".

GSK identified a shortage of local chemistry talent to support its science-based business, so last year, the HR team started working with the Education Ministry's SgIS scholarship programme. A chemistry undergraduate is sponsored each year and learns from top talent in GSK's technical development team.

GSK's efforts have also paid off in other ways - producing leaders in biopharmaceutical firms here.

"Many have been developed in GSK, helping Singapore expand the new biomedical sector, such as a few of my ex-colleagues who are top leaders, such as Mr Mark Chua of a Novartis unit in Singapore. There are also engineers, chemists and quality professionals with roots that can be traced to GSK," says Mr Lim.

CONTINUOUS LEARNING

Acquiring new skills has taken on a different form. Mr Lim says: "In specialised fields where we don't have related skill sets or tech, talent from Britain such as the R&D department or other parts of the organisation are brought in. They complement our staff and gradually help develop our people."

In 2013, GSK sent several staff - including front-line operators, maintenance technicians, supervisors, managers and directors - to Japanese giant Toyota to learn from its production system.

"Investing has yielded tangible returns. The performance of Singapore's operations is recognised and rewarded with more responsibilities. Today, Singapore has one of the most complex and strategic factories within the GSK manufacturing network," Mr Lim says, adding that it developed its own production system.

Ms Huynh notes that this is the future of HR, "given the shift in our economy", and firms must focus on human capital. She adds: "Continuous learning is an essential strategy as it encourages creativity and innovation - vital for every business in today's landscape."

Looking at how each employee underwent GSK's structured training, starting from the early days, Mr Lim says: "That tradition lets us see the benefits and returns of such investments, propelling us to do more for employees."

For instance, over three years, GSK has reduced quality defects by 75 per cent, inching close to world-class benchmarks. Mr Lim proudly says: "All these could happen because of the people here and their attitudes and mindsets."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 24, 2017, with the headline 'Focus on grooming and training local talent'. Print Edition | Subscribe