Retaining talent a big challenge for science and tech firms: Survey

Talent retention is the biggest talent-related challenge facing Singapore's science and technology industry, a new local survey showed.

More than 40 per cent of the 146 research and development (R&D) and technical professionals believed this to be the case in the inaugural survey by government-owned venture firm SGInnovate.

Other challenges outlined included the quality of the existing local talent pool (23.2 per cent), Singapore's ability to attract global talent (17.4 per cent) and the pipeline of entry-level talent (15.5 per cent).

A related insights report that accompanied the survey results released yesterday said that talent retention was especially difficult for smaller companies or start-ups, which may not always have the deep pockets or the reputation to keep employees.

Such start-ups could retain talent by giving them complex technical challenges to solve - which, in turn, would give workers a sense of accomplishment, said the report.

The chief executive of Singapore machine learning start-up ViSenze, Mr Oliver Tan, said in the report that his software engineers enjoyed solving the visual search problems proposed by the firm's clients, as the process allowed them to list specific projects that they had undertaken in their resumes.

He said: "This way, they get to increase their value if they want to move to another company. But in the process, they stay longer with ViSenze doing important and relevant work."

Despite the concerns of talent retention, the majority of the respondents (88 per cent) surveyed believed that Singapore would remain competitive as a global science and technology R&D and product development hub in the next decade.

They cited the Government's "strong support and clear direction" as top reasons for this.

More than one-quarter (25.5 per cent) of the respondents felt that the Government should continue to take the lead in building up the talent pool, said the report.

Nearly a quarter, or 22.4 per cent, said the national science and technology agencies should spearhead this effort instead.

No matter which body takes the lead, however, upskilling was necessary as technology threatened to displace jobs, noted industry experts at a panel session to launch the report.

Mr Poon King Wang, director of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said a way to approach the issue was to define a job's tasks, rather than the skills required. This would make upskilling appear less daunting. He said: "People can adapt better when they can draw on something they're familiar with."

Citing the example of training a 5G engineer, Mr Poon said one could look at upskilling a 4G engineer by identifying what tasks are similar between the two jobs. For tasks that are not similar, the engineer could then focus on training just for those, he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 05, 2020, with the headline Retaining talent a big challenge for science and tech firms: Survey. Subscribe