Hiring beyond the industry for the future

Alcon Manufacturing and Logistics' (from far left) head of human resources Elsie Lim, 46, general manager Mark Chua, 59, and head of replenishment centre Joel Ang, 44.
Alcon Manufacturing and Logistics' (from far left) head of human resources Elsie Lim, 46, general manager Mark Chua, 59, and head of replenishment centre Joel Ang, 44.PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Xin Yun talks to Alcon Manufacturing and Logistics in the final instalment of a four-part series brought to you by the Ministry of Manpower that spotlights the progressive human resource practices companies have put in place to maximise the full potential of all employees in creating an inclusive workforce.

Embracing mid-career switchers may not be the first thing companies think of, but Alcon Manufacturing and Logistics believes it is the way forward.

Alcon general manager Mark Chua, who has been with the company for about 10 years, notes: "With a limited talent pool within the pharmaceutical industry, whenever there's an expansion, we tend to recruit among the same sector.

"It's a game of musical chairs - people just rotate firms for pay increase and it drives up wages, making us uncompetitive in the long term, and it's harder to develop people with a depth of skills - prevailing industry concerns."

The average market attrition rate was 12.4 per cent last year, but Alcon's is lower.

Mr Chua, who sits on the biopharmaceutical manufacturing advisory committee, says human resource is "on the agenda of every single meeting we have".

That gave Alcon, with 380 employees here and 700 million contact lenses produced annually, and the industry the push to "enlarge the pool".

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Alcon's vision of transforming into a smart factory, which came into place last year, means a need for higher productivity. So Mr Chua has set "a plan for the next five years to transform this site into a smart factory".

"This new ambition calls for different skills that may not be prevalent today. We don't even have some of those skills now," he says.

A major effort was joining the Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) earlier this year. The PCP caters to professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), including mid-career switchers.

Alcon has already placed 18 PCP participants in the company, with more to come. Of the 18, eight are below 30 years of age, four between 31 and 40, and six above 40 - from myriad industries, such as oil and gas, aviation and personal care.

Alcon human resources head Elsie Lim says that besides drawing resources from other sectors, attracting them adds to talent quality for its "smart manufacturing goal".

"For instance, those from the semiconductor industry are strong in automation, infrastructure and the engineering process, and those from fast-moving consumer goods are strong in planning," she says.

In fact, Ms Lim is one example of a successful crossover, having moved from the high-tech and energy sector, notes Mr Chua.

"Elsie has high learning agility and was able to understand our technology and products well. In Alcon, we look beyond specific skills, such as behavioural competency.

"Besides her skills in innovating HR and such, I was looking for her skills and competency as a leader, to head our HR function. What we've done with Elsie is what we're doing with our PCP."

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

Alcon used to be conservative, says Ms Lim, and first looked for relevant or similar experience when it came to new vacancies.

Now, the company studies the human capital density of the entire country, across all industries.

Ms Lim likens it to measuring productivity at a country level, adding: "Some industries are happy to release their resources to other industries, while others have specific strengths we can bring in or complement. Firms should proactively work with government agencies to understand Singapore's human capital density and start planning their HR needs."

Training was also conventional, she notes, where programmes were based on its training needs, but it works differently now. Just two months ago, Alcon teamed up with the Singapore Economic Development Board to assess its readiness for smart manufacturing.

Ms Lim says it will help identify strong core areas and gaps, so Alcon can "develop a training master plan - raising core skills and training for emerging ones".

Alcon exemplifies companies that groom employees for top roles.

As Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said on Sept 29, such companies should also equip employees with world-class skills such as running smart factories.

He urged companies to strengthen their Singaporean core, not just in numbers but in capabilities, competencies and responsibilities. Firms should nurture "glocal" talent - locals with global experience - not only to join the ranks of senior management but to have the world-class skills and competencies that will be in demand in the future.

Employers and workers alike can tap national initiatives such as SkillsFuture and Adapt & Grow to enhance the employability and employment of Singaporeans of all ages.

On Tuesday, Mr Lim will announce the second batch of companies under the Human Capital Partnership Programme. These HCPartners are exemplary employers who have not only transformed their businesses and optimised human capital, but have proactively facilitated skills and capability transfers to local employees.

Alcon is unique in that it is inclusive and tackles traditional notions.

Ms Lim says: "We have 10 co-curricular activities to create a campus-like environment and culture. Associates are encouraged to participate or pick up a community role, such as in music and dance. People from different departments can foster better relationships in this way."

Mr Chua says the initiative started last year. "Manufacturing is often seen as boring, dirty and smelly, but it's not. We're making it fun."

Mr Chua, who is a SkillsFuture career adviser, shares more than 30 years of experience with new hires "to help people arrive at the right career choice".

"I've spoken to students and done career talks, but being an adviser opens new avenues for reaching out to mid-career switchers. I hope my experience helps them consider a career in our industry."

BEAUTY IN STRUCTURE

Ms Lim notes even before initiatives like the PCP, Alcon was already looking at talent outside, but such programmes brought along structured training.

She says mid-career switchers face challenges such as keeping up with the fast pace and high compliance requirements.

While some have dropped out, those who persevere are assured of their roles in the new sector.

Alcon also has its TechOps Academy Programme, a development effort to fast-track talented employees into the global technical operations network, for instance.

With such programmes, movers from other industries have said they feel appreciated "as they are given fair opportunities to upgrade their skills in areas they are not familiar with", says Ms Lim.

Mr Lim had also called on local workers to leave their comfort zone, take on new challenges and be willing to work their way up. He noted the number of local PMETs has grown in the last three years.

Mr Chua adds new hires are usually given a set of standard operating procedures, and just execute the "how" and the "what".

"But after programmes like the PCP, they understand the industry better.

"Now that they understand the 'why', they can really innovate and get breakthrough ideas."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline 'Hiring beyond the industry for the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe