, Singapore

Why should Singaporean talent want to work for a Singaporean company?

By Mike Parsons

That little red spot, what a great piece of marketing that's been, it's everywhere. Whether you're a true-blue Singaporean, or merely a holidaymaker passing through, there can be little doubt that this year it's Singapore's 50th birthday. Happy birthday, Singapore.

And what a 50 years it's been, too. Singapore's population in 1965 was just 1.88 million and produced a gross domestic product of just US$974.2 million. Now, just 50 years later, a relatively short amount of time when discussing the economies of nations, Singapore is closing in on a population of 6 million and has a scarcely believable GDP of US$307.87 billion (2014). Few would deny that Singapore's burgeoning economy has been one of the stand-out success stories of modern times.

So what's next for Singapore's economy? Can it just stay on the same trajectory and become a world superpower in 2065? One thing's for sure, there isn't an abundance of physical space or richness of natural resources to base a lot of that future growth on – so it's a good thing Singapore has other cards up its sleeve, and that playing to its strengths has always been this little nation's party trick.

So what am I talking about? Well, in this case, education. According to the QS World University Rankings, Singapore has Asia's most highly ranked University, NUS, and another just five places behind that, NTU. According to these world rankings, Singapore's universities are outperforming those of India, China, Japan, Korea, and the rest of the countries in the world's most populous continent.

Yet, all this world-class education is servicing a national population of under 6 million, leading to a very highly-educated and talented workforce. Not only that, high levels of personal wealth in Singapore mean that sending offspring to universities in the UK and USA, those that dominate the very top of the world university rankings, is also commonplace.

Having a workforce this talented, along with all of Singapore's pro-business policies, non-existent corruption, and attractive quality of living, has made it a no-brainer for international businesses to set up here; in fact, many choose to make Singapore their regional headquarters.

However, as fantastic as all this has been for the growth of Singapore's economy, it has also made life a little more complicated for Singapore's home-grown organisations, who now have to compete with the world's biggest and best employers for their most valuable resource, talent!

So, if you're a talented young Singaporean who's about to embark on their career, what do you do? Do you aspire to join a leading domestic organisation, built and founded in the glorious and successful city-state you call home, or is the allure of the best international employers simply too much to resist? Well, it turns out that the answer is… 'it depends'. Sorry. Let me tell you why.

Allow me to set the scene a little; for the past 27 years Universum has conducted the world's largest talent survey, seeking to understand the career goals and desires of the world's millennial generation. This year the study gathered the opinions of over 1.3 million gen-Ys from around the world. So, what does the Singapore data tell us?

The Singapore portion of this global talent survey is undertaken in partnership with Singapore’s big four universities -- NUS, NTU, SMU, and SIM. In 2015 there were over 9,300 participants, which was an increase of 28% from the year before. 58% of respondents were female and the average age was a little over 21 years old. Since the millennial generation will form over 75% of the workforce in Asia in less than ten years' time, this sample really does represent the future of Singapore's workforce.

So what do young Singaporeans say they want from their career and from their employer? Well, regardless of their field of study, Singaporean millennials are pretty well aligned on their career goals; achieving work/life balance holds the top spot for a fourth consecutive year and, likewise, career security and stability follows in second. The third most important career goal is "to be dedicated to a cause or to feel as if I'm serving a greater good".

These desires are pretty consistent with their peers from similarly strong and successful economies around the world and are pretty intrinsic of this generation.

In terms of what talented young Singaporeans want from their employers, based on the study's 40 measured employer attributes, a friendly working environment, high future earnings, and professional training and development are the three that come out on top.

So, based on all this, who do tomorrow's workforce want to work for? Who are the employers that are believed to offer these things above all others? And are they local or international entities?

Now here is where it depends. If you're a domestic Singaporean company who wants to attract the very best Singaporean business talent, the news is pretty good. If, however, you're after talent from the engineering and natural science cohort, there is, shall we say, room for improvement.

In terms of the overall number of companies ranked by millennials as being among the most attractive employers in Singapore, about 30% of the companies they aspire to work for are home-grown. This figure in isolation isn't too bad when you consider the sheer number of international alternatives there are in each industry, coming from all the other countries around the world. What's more interesting are the trends within the data, and the movement we can measure.

Among business talent in Singapore, although only 30 of the top 100 most attractive organisations are home-grown, over 43% of those companies are climbing up the list, rather than maintaining their position or falling. Or, in other words, almost half of the ranked domestic companies are becoming more attractive. When you compare this to the 70 international employers that are ranked in the top 100, only 31% are climbing.

Collectively, in terms of total ranking places gained and lost, the international companies have lost 107 ranking places between them, whereas the home-grown companies have gained 13. This certainly points to a shift towards Singapore's young business talent becoming more interested in working for domestic employers. Therefore this is excellent news for those savvy Singaporean employers looking to hire Singapore's best business talent.

Sadly the story among the engineering and natural sciences students is the other way around. Of the 32 domestic companies ranked in the top 100, only 31% have been able to climb from their position a year ago, which compares to 44% among international companies.

Also, in contrast to the data from the business students, domestic employers lose a cumulative total of 157 ranking places, compared to the international employers, who lose just five ranking places collectively. If you're a Singaporean employer and you want to attract Singapore's top engineering talent, it might be time to take a look at how well employer brand resonates with your target talent.

So who are Singapore's most attractive domestic employers and who are they competing with for Singapore's best talent? Keeping it to those ranked among the top 20, business talent identifies the most attractive Singaporean employers as being:

- Singapore Airlines - 2nd
- DBS - 13th
- OCBC - 14th
- Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) - 15th

And among engineering and natural sciences students, the most attractive Singaporean employers are:

- A*STAR - 2nd
- Singapore Airlines - 3rd
- Ministry of Education (MoE) - 8th
- Ministry of Health (MoH) - 11th
- Keppel Corporation - 14th
- Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) - 15th
- DSO National Laboratories - 19th

This is where it gets interesting. Digging into the data we're able to uncover why these are the Singaporean employers that are the most attractive to this critical talent group. Comparing the scores given on all of the 40 employer attributes measured, there were a few clear discrepancies between these local employers and the other international employers they're competing with in the top 20. Or, in other words, there were a few identifiable strengths that these local entities have.

Among those local employers most admired by business talent, the three attributes that they consistently scored higher on when compared to their international competitors were;

1) Enabling me to integrate my personal interest into my schedule
2) Environmental sustainability
3) Sponsorship of future education

Since we know that among the most desired career goals of this talent group is achieving work/life balance and feeling dedicated to a cause or the greater good, you would expect employers who offered these particular things the most to perform very well in attracting this talent, which seems to be the case here.

Also, those who are perceived to offer strong opportunities for training and development, like these local employers are, have another clear advantage in Singapore.

What happens if we turn this on its head and look at the areas where the international employers leave the local organisations in the dust? Well, they are differentiated most on;

1) Recruiting only the best talent
2) Prestige
3) Interaction with international clients and colleagues

Although there are no bad employer attributes, per se, none of these feature particularly highly on the wish lists of Singaporean millennials and, therefore, are certainly less effective draw cards for these employers.

So what about the companies topping the list for those in engineering and natural sciences? Well, it seems that local employers do share some similar traits, key among those being the way they are seen as a better bet for future education and development, something we know is very attractive to those entering the job market here.

The other top attributes this set of local employers are generally perceived to be stronger in are greater job security and offering greater levels of responsibility than their international peers. However, unlike those topping the business rankings, they are less differentiated by work/life balance, which is still the Holy Grail for attracting this generation.

Of course, the increased job security offered by local companies is still another trump card and something that should be communicated well to increase attractiveness.

Competing for talent with the likes of Google, PwC, and Microsoft is never going to be easy, but the future for Singapore's best home-grown employers is full of promise. If these companies truly understand their target talent, and are able to adapt and play to their strengths as employers, as organisations like Singapore Airlines and A*STAR have been, they can come out victorious in the war for Singapore's best talent.

From what I've seen, the key to the kingdom for those working in talent attraction in Singapore is to understand your employer brand, know exactly how the market perceives you as an employer, and ensure your communication strategy is exactly that -- a strategy, something that involves targeting the right people with the right messaging.

This isn't an overnight fix, this requires a long-term commitment and buy-in from all internal stakeholders but, for those who are able to take this view, the rewards are well worth the journey.

Here's to another 50 prosperous years, to Singapore continuing to lead the way in Asia, and to Singaporean companies continuing to give the very best employers in the world a serious run for their money. Happy birthday, Singapore.

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