Firms need to balance finding right skills and hiring locals: Experts

As a small country, Singapore will never produce enough talent of its own, hence it has positioned itself as a global talent hub, said one business leader. But this issue has become emotionally sensitive, especially with the economic recession.
As a small country, Singapore will never produce enough talent of its own, hence it has positioned itself as a global talent hub, said one business leader. But this issue has become emotionally sensitive, especially with the economic recession.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

A recruiter said not a single Singaporean was hired through the Jobs Bank in the three years she worked at an employment agency.

Half her division, she added, was made up of foreigners.

A bank executive recounted that the trading floor of the multinational bank where she works is crowded with employees from a particular Asian country, including their family members from the same region in the country.

"How is it possible that (they) are almost always the best person for the job or a promotion?" she asked.

These were among the comments The Straits Times received, after the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said on Wednesday that more employers have been added to the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF) watch list for potentially discriminatory hiring practices. MOM's update came amid concerns from local job seekers that they are not getting a fair deal in a tough job market.

But do Singaporeans lack the relevant skills?

Business leaders interviewed by The Straits Times said some sectors do have a skills shortage that can be filled by foreigners.

But they all agree there is no reason for companies to hire workers only from a single foreign nationality.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore said that based on its manpower survey last year, American companies here cited soft skills, including adaptability, willingness to take risks, creativity and leadership skills, as being the hardest to find in local workers.

This led them to hire foreigners.

Technical skills and market knowledge ranked further down the list of reasons firms gave for not hiring Singaporeans.

 
 
 

Singaporean-German Chamber of Industry and Commerce council member Alexander Melchers cautioned against generalising why Singaporeans do not make the cut.

The reasons tend to be industry-and company-specific, he said, citing the shortage of skilled workers in the aviation sector just before Covid-19 struck.

What about the financial services sector, which has the lion's share of newcomers on the FCF watch list?

Mr Melchers said that if a German wealth management firm sets up office here, German clients tend to be more comfortable dealing with Germans. This means it must have German speakers on board.

He added that the Jobs Bank has thrown up interesting curriculum vitae and "opened the eyes" of many European companies to the local talent pool.

Singapore International Chamber of Commerce chief executive Victor Mills said that as a small country, Singapore will never produce enough talent of its own, hence it has positioned itself as a global talent hub.

But this issue has become emotionally sensitive, especially with the economic recession, and it is right that the Government wants to ensure local candidates get fair consideration, he said.

What is "completely unacceptable in any country", he added, is the practice of recruiting from only one nationality. "It doesn't make sense because you want diversity of the workforce to better reflect your customer base."

If some firms cannot be counted on to follow the rules, should the authorities issue fewer work passes and tighten the FCF framework?

Mr David Leong, managing director of human resources firm PeopleWorldwide Consulting, said one option is to require companies to employ local trainees or interns to pair with S Pass holders, and take over their jobs when their contract is up.

He noted the problem of foreign employees is especially acute in the software, IT and financial sectors. The middle-and back-room staff who work on project management, programming and coding tend to gather familiar colleagues from their home country to work together, he said.

Mr Melchers said the national economic strategy must come first. "Where and how do we want to grow our economy?

"Then we need to be very specific about where we can afford to reduce the EPs (Employment Passes) or S Passes, and where we have enough training institutes and talent that can pick up the skills fast enough, so we don't stop the growth of these companies.

"Otherwise, they may go somewhere else where they can find these talents."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2020, with the headline 'Firms need to balance finding right skills and hiring locals: Experts'. Subscribe