, Singapore

Can tech solve Singapore's talent and manpower crunch?

Hotels have started using robo-butlers for delivery services whilst the government has deployed AI systems for border security purposes.

Even though Singapore has a thriving job market home to some of world’s largest brands like Sony, Apple and Google, a chronic manpower and talent shortage problem is fast crippling the growth of businesses in the lion city, causing promising startups to go bust and companies resorting to expensive overseas hires just to plug the shortage.

The city-state has a gaping number of job vacancies estimated at around 48,800 in 2017, according to statistics released by the Ministry of Manpower, with the accommodation and food services, and administrative jobs in security and investigation registering some of the highest vacancy levels at 6.4% and 4.9% respectively in Q4.

Also read: Singapore launches job matcher website for citizens and PRs

“Let’s put Singapore’s talent shortage into perspective. Yes, it is bad – worse than Malaysia, Switzerland, and the Nordic countries but not as severe as South Korea, Japan, China and Vietnam. That’s what the statistics say. It will get worse in the future with the demographic crunch as in Japan,” Bruno Lanvin, Executive Director for Global Indices and Paul Evans, Professor and Academic Director for GTCI at INSEAD told Singapore Business Review.

A survey by NUS Enterprise revealed that hiring human resources is one of the most critical issues for tech startups with nearly eight in 10 (77%) citing HR difficulties as amongst the top five challenges they face when scaling. 

Turning to AI
As a consequence, a growing number of industries, particularly in the hospitality sector, have been turning to technological advancements like AI and robotics to fill the severe manpower gap. Late last year, Hotel Jen Tanglin Singapore unveiled robo-butlers Jeno and Jena who can perform simple deliveries whilst a restaurant in M Social Singapore has a robot chef that can cook quality sunny side up’s.

The police force is also in the process of fully automating all neighbourhood police posts that can provide 24/7 access to routine police services like submitting crime reports and lost-and-found property which frees up more officers to be redeployed to the ground. The government is similarly deploying AI systems for border security and machine learning for arduous document audits.

However, high value jobs also run the risk of being displaced by tech. Institutions like banks, which handle tons of customer data on a daily basis, need to be at the forefront of this change and be proactive by accelerating their upskilling initiatives especially against the looming threat of cyberattacks, analysts unanimously said. 

“For the financial services industry, the future of the workplace continues to be shaped by disruptive forces, such as new regulations, changing customer behaviour and technology,” Robert Half Singapore managing director Matthieu Imbert-Bouchard said. “Financial services candidates need to demonstrate they can manage this disruption to remain competitive in the workforce.”

To respond to the need, the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the Association of Banks in Singapore along with other organisations developed a human resources advisory detailing best HR practices for banks in the areas of hiring, reskilling, redeployment, retrenchment and upskilling last March.

“Consumers expectations and demands for a seamless banking experience are also accelerating the pace of upskilling in the sector, as the banking sector have to quickly adopt new technologies into their digital offerings to enhance the customer experience,” said ManpowerGroup Singapore country manager Linda Teo.

Banks should also adopt a more open stance to automation than resist the inevitable and leverage the capabilities of the phenomenon to increase their market value as employees, added Imbert-Bouchard.

“As technology transforms organisations, skills needs are changing rapidly and companies are finding it harder to get the talent they need,” Teo added. “Having robots and AI chatbots do certain tasks is an efficient and sustainable strategy which addresses the issue of manpower shortage.”

In addition to the lack of human resources, skills shortage remains a pressing problem plaguing recruiters and businesses across industries in the lion city. “Within finance and accounting, our research has found 100% of CFOs in Singapore find it challenging to source skilled professionals – making it of equal importance that companies have a proactive recruitment and retention strategy in place,” Imbert-Bouchard said.

Upskilling the current employee pool thus emerges as an attractive alternative because it is more cost-efficient than spending energy and resources on recruitment, hiring and offering higher salary packages, according to Richa Sharma, Manager, Page Personnel Singapore.

But more than attracting talent and upskilling, Singapore also needs to work on retaining its workers. Recruiters need to note that non-financial incentives, like professional development and flexible working arrangement, are gaining more weight in the motivating factors of jobseekers and employees, according to Imbert-Bouchard.

"Companies and the government need to start thinking about what’s good for retaining talent versus how does this benefit the company. There are labour laws and regulations which can be strengthened to protect the work life balance of employees. This will create a better work environment and ultimately more work life balance," Sharma added. 

Revamping hiring
Technology is similarly changing the recruitment landscape, streamlining the time-consuming process at the same time, making it more interactive in a bid to attract elusive job hunters. Companies especially in the FMCG sector have been increasingly turning to social media and revamping their spaces to attract talent, Sharma added.

“A lot of the new, startup blue chip/IT companies that are setting up shop and looking to make Singapore their Asia HQ’s are the ones who have invested a lot of time and money into social media platforms as an active part of their hiring strategy,” she observed. “There will be a continuation and acceleration and shift in hiring trends in Singapore as opposed to the known trends and other industries are jumping on the social media bandwagon.

Gamifying hiring processes has also been gaining traction in recent months, observed Teo, particularly in banks, technology and FMCG multinational companies, with recruiters assessing candidates based on their performance in competitive game formats.

Also read: DBS to hire future-ready tech talents via hackathon

While technology streamlines manual processes like screening resumes and responding to common candidate questions to free up more time for recruiters, Sharma claimed that the hiring process cannot function without the necessary human judgment that can spot soft skills like volunteer projects and other CSR activities.  

“There is just no substitute for real-world interaction and human judgements when it comes to finding and securing the right talent. Only human judgement can determine the right soft skills and determine whether the candidate will make the right cultural fit, such as sense of humour, temperament and enthusiasm,” Imbert-Bouchard said.  

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