Boosting talent in technical fields

Getting workers to upgrade their skills is increasingly important as the economy is transformed by rapid technological advancements. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam is expected to announce, in next Monday's Budget, wide-ranging moves to help the workforce meet the challenges of the future.

Engineering services boss Melvin Tan wants to expand his business but the lack of engineers is forcing him to hire pricey contract labour or take on less qualified staff who need training.

The result is more time spent on staff issues while business opportunities are passed over.

The dilemma facing Mr Tan, the managing director of Cyclect, is echoed across sectors such as engineering and construction.

Several bosses told The Straits Times last week that finding locals with specialised skills in areas such as engineering, software development and life sciences is an uphill task.

"The pay for engineers is not bad. But it is not a glamorous job. That is why not many young people are drawn to the field," said Mr Tan.

Employers want the SkillsFuture Council, a national panel set up last year to offer fresh ideas and funds, to get more young people interested in the various fields.

The council, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, has been tasked with developing training and career progression schemes for workers in various industries (see box).

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Mr Tharman is expected to make an announcement on the council's plans in his Budget statement next Monday.

  • Specialised skills in high demand

Employers said workers with strong technical knowledge are increasingly important as the economy is restructured and becomes more skills-based.

But companies are struggling to hire these workers, as not enough students are going into specialised fields at school.

Also, younger workers tend not to stay long in their jobs.

"It is challenging enough to get workers with specialised skills. Then some leave in one or two years because they want to try new things," said managing director Grace Yow of Fluidigm Singapore, a manufacturer of genetic analysis equipment.

Companies in niche sectors have no choice but to train fresh graduates from scratch, as the schools are not equipping them with the skills the industry needs.

Yet the time and effort spent on training often comes to nought when workers leave before becoming specialists, said bosses.

Mr Jerry Ng, director of electronic devices recycling firm Cimelia Resource Recovery, said new hires in his industry take about six months to pick up the fundamentals.

However, it can take 10 years to get to the top of the field but few stay for the long haul.

"I can count on my fingers people who have stayed for more than 10 years," said Mr Ng.

  • Attracting and retaining talent

Mr Tay Cheng Hoo, human resource director of German electronics firm Rohde & Schwarz, said he hopes the SkillsFuture Council can interest students in specialised fields with bond-free scholarships.

"The students should join us because they are passionate about our work. They should not feel indebted because they are bonded to our companies," added Mr Tay.

Fluidigm's Ms Yow said that companies need to work more closely with schools to attract students.

"Companies should offer structured internships. It is also an opportunity for employers to interest students in what they do," said Ms Yow.

Firms must also work harder at retaining staff by keeping them interested in the work, said bosses.

Cyclect's Mr Tan said: "I give my engineers the opportunity to try new things such as business development and sales. You must think about growing your people."

Human resource experts agreed that keeping jobs interesting and challenging is vital for staff retention.

Ms Linda Teo, country manager at recruitment firm ManpowerGroup Singapore, said: "Short overseas stints can enhance the work experience of any employee. Empowering staff to make decisions also helps to keep them engaged."

  • Workers want rewarding careers

Workers said they are drawn to firms that are committed to developing them.

Ms Gayle Tan, 32, a chemical engineer by training, said she is loyal to her company Cyclect because her bosses gave her the opportunity to move from engineering to a business development role.

"Having a job which fits our interest is important to younger workers," said Ms Tan.

Similarly, Mr Ang Kian Hua, 32, a team leader at precision engineering firm Makino Asia, has stayed with his firm for eight years because of opportunities such as job rotation and skills upgrading programmes.

The Institute of Technical Education graduate said: "I want to progress in my career to give my family and me a better life."