Singapore faces talent crunch as tech giants scale up

Singapore is aiming to become a regional tech hub but faces a severe talent crunch as more firms move in. - ST

SINGAPORE (Reuters): At least three recruiters approach Singapore-based software engineer Xiao Yuguang every day with job offers.

Demand for Xiao's skills has soared since he graduated in 2014 with a computer engineering degree but now he just ignores the offers, having recently joined TikTok owner Bytedance after several years with Southeast Asia's Grab.

"It's not like I want to change jobs frequently," said Xiao.

Singapore is aiming to become a regional tech hub but faces a severe talent crunch as more firms move in, interviews with more than a dozen recruiters, companies and workers show.

China's Tencent, Bytedance, US-based Zoom Video Communications and unicorn Grab and Sea Ltd are among companies expanding in Singapore, fueling a war for tech talent in the city-state, where the jobless rate had reached a 16-year high due to a coronavirus-induced recession.

"Certain member companies have been expanding their operations... and looking to hire more data scientists, more coders," said Lei Hsien-Hsien, chief executive officer at the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore.

"So the demand is very strong but the supply is relatively weak, which then slows down some of the expansion plans."

Up to 500 new tech vacancies are posted each week on job sites, according to NodeFlair, which is helping hire for Bytedance and Sea's e-commerce business Shopee.

The information communications sector would need another 60,000 professionals over the next three years, cabinet minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in June.

In response to a Reuters query on the figure, the communications ministry said in mid-September there were nearly 10,000 tech-related job postings on a government-run careers portal and another 6,800 jobs and traineeships would be created by June 2021 through industry partnerships.

Border curbs due to the coronavirus and tighter foreign worker policies are delaying overseas hiring, exacerbating the shortage, some headhunters said. Some tech professionals can command pay increases of up to 30% when they switch jobs.

"It's not sustainable," said Daljit Sall at recruitment firm Randstad, who expects salaries to even out once borders reopen and as the talent pool develops.

The government has been re-training thousands of people with tech skills while the intake for IT courses at Singapore colleges has risen 17% over the past three years to about 7,600 for the 2020 academic year.

Singapore, an Asian base for many multinationals and banks, has for years had a tight labour market and the country of 5.7 million people does not yet have the capacity to quickly match the tech skills and experience the industry needs.

"There are a lot of tech companies coming in and it's a small island," said Raagulan Pathy, head of enterprise Asia Pacific at Zoom, which plans to hire hundreds of engineers.

"The simple maths of it means that at a certain point you are going to run out of talent," said Pathy, adding that Singapore's programme for allocating visas for foreign workers was pragmatic.

For now, the labour crunch does not seem to be putting anyone off. The Economic Development Board (EDB) is getting healthy interest from global tech companies keen to expand operations, it said.

"We constantly seek to ensure companies who set up here have access to a strong Singaporean workforce complemented by a diverse foreign workforce," said Managing Director Chng Kai Fong.

The EDB has various programmes to bridge the skills shortage including one that helps tech companies bring in talent from overseas and a new work visa for top-tier tech executives.

The work visa, launched this month, has prompted many enquiries, recruiters said. But it is limited to 500 participants and has strict criteria.

Companies are finding ways to cope. Shopping rewards platform ShopBack resorts to reallocating workload to its existing engineers to meet new demands.

Fintech firm Nium's 250-strong engineering team is in India. Its 13-strong team of product managers is being doubled in Singapore, CEO Prajit Nanu said.

Singapore's open economy was hit hard by the pandemic, airlines and tourism in particular, and former Singapore Airlines flight attendant Alloysius Lee is thankful he decided to study data analytics.

"I feel lucky... I spent the past few years learning and picking up a new skill," said Lee, 32.

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