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In the Asia-Pacific, talent shortages will bite hardest in S'pore

KellyOCG study: C-suite execs say HR often doesn't engage in the fight for talent in light of the company's business strategy

To address the problem of talent shortage, 85 per cent of senior executives in Singapore expect to maintain or increase their percentage of contingent, or gig, workers over the next two years.


SINGAPORE is expected to be the hardest hit by talent shortages in the near future, relative to the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.

A study by talent-outsourcing firm KellyOCG has found that 75 per cent of C-suite leaders in Singapore expect this dearth of talent to dent their business prospects in the next three years. ( The Asia-Pacific average is lower - at 61 per cent.)

Its workforce agility report, "Navigate Asia-Pacific's Future Talent Frontier", also found that despite the looming problem, only 58 per cent of organisations in the Asia-Pacific (57 per cent in Singapore) say they have a clear plan - and only for the next three years at that.

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KellyOCG's study, conducted among 210 C-suite level executives across various industries in Singapore, Australia, India and Malaysia, also found signs that the human resources (HR) function does not appear to be on the frontline in the war for talent.

To be sure, the HR departments fared better in areas such as talent acquisition, talent retention and operational excellence, but the majority of Asia-Pacific C-suite leaders did not think their HR teams were excelling or even fully competent at enabling or elevating business strategy.

Eight in 10 of these chief executives recognised the potential of HR to play this kind of role; in Singapore, the figure was 63 per cent.

Only a little over half (53 per cent) of Asia-Pacific C-suite leaders said their HR department is involved in the development of the business strategy in order to understand the critical talent needs of the company. Singapore's situation is similar, at 50 per cent.

This finding suggests that not enough leaders trust that their HR departments are up to coping with talent shortages or contributing to business conversations.

Only 37 per cent of C-suite leaders in the Asia-Pacific believe that their HR departments can provide strategic workforce insights, which entails using data and analytics to contribute to business planning; in Singapore, the figure is a dismal 10 per cent.

To address the problem of talent shortage, 88 per cent of senior executives in the region (85 per cent in Singapore) expect to maintain or increase their percentage of "contingent workers" over the next two years. Contingent workers, otherwise widely known as free agents or gig workers, form the external workforce of organisations and comprise freelancers, independent contractors, micropreneurs, small-business owners and temporary or contract workers.

Nearly seven in 10 leaders (69 per cent) named "Access to specialist skills and expertise that lie outside the organisation" as the biggest benefit of turning to flexible staffing; this was followed by "Ability to scale the workforce according to business cycles", at 63 per cent.

Tatiana Ohm, vice-president and general manager at KellyOCG South-east Asia, said that more can be done to integrate the contingent workforce into organisations.

She said: "Given the average time period for full-time employees to stay in organisations in Singapore is about two years, it means that there is little difference between a contingent worker and a full-time employee.

"HR needs to embrace this change. An organisation's culture needs to transform in line with this development, and provide full-time employees with the same level of flexibility enjoyed by contingent workers in order to make them stay."

But the reality is that not all businesses can depend on contingent workers.

Take the security-services sector, for example. Toby Koh, group managing director of Ademco Security Group, said that because of the niche nature of the industry - that of security-surveillance systems - he has a limited talent pool to pick from.

He disclosed that he had previously considered hiring a contingent worker who was to work from home, but the compensation asked for was "too high and unrealistic".

He added: "At the end of the day, if we provide that kind of package, we might as well have looked for full-time talent instead."

Ademco therefore hires people from one of the seven countries in which it operates, and lets them work remotely, or upskills someone from within the organisation; the remaining option is to outsource the role altogether.

The food and beverage industry, however, is one that still depends heavily on freelancers and contract workers, even as it evolves to become more automated and efficient.

Picasso Terrence, group Chief Business Officer of Xiao Ban Company Limited (which owns the popular soya beancurd brand Lao Ban), said he hires up to 20 per cent more of contract workers during the peak months of June and July. The usual headcount in Singapore is about 80.

He agreed that the shortage of talent is a bugbear among businesses in Singapore. In Vietnam, where Lao Ban has set up shop, for example, he can pull in at least 50 suitable candidates in a day; in Singapore, finding even 30 took six months.

Lao Ban now has more than 21 outlets in Singapore, but the difficulty in finding manpower is crimping its expansion plans. Mr Terrence has thus cast his eye on markets such as Cambodia, Taiwan and Vietnam. "In Singapore, it's still difficult as F&B is a very tough and not very sexy industry . . . Young people don't feel its trendy. They want to be in professional positions," he said.

The company has therefore turned to hiring contingent workers. It has a central kitchen to produce the beancurd, which cuts down on its labour needs, and it also hires retirees and home-makers by offering them flexible hours as an enticement.