SINGAPORE: As a child, Huang Wei Long liked to tinker with his action figures and reconfigure their battery parts. When he grew older, he moved on to keyboards and audio parts, even building his own speakers.
He enrolled in the School of Computing at the National University of Singapore (NUS), which he said was a natural next step.
Before he graduated in 2017, Mr Huang had already secured a job as a software developer with a startup called Shentilium Technologies. He still applied to about 10 companies, “just to learn what the market is like”, he said. Three to five offers came in, including one from Facebook and another from IBM.
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But he chose to stick with the startup, knowing it would provide more opportunities to be “experimental” and try on various roles within the company.
He has since moved on and is now a software engineer at Cynopsis Solutions. The 24-year-old said he earns a monthly salary of "between S$5,000 and S$6,000".
Mr Huang is one of the many university graduates that have secured jobs in Singapore's growing technology sector as the government sees through its plans to digitalise the entire country through its Smart Nation drive launched in 2014. To that end, businesses have been encouraged to adopt new technologies through the 23 Industry Transformation Maps rolled out since 2016.
And according to the 2018 Infocomm Media Manpower Survey, demand for infocomm professionals – which hit 202,600 in 2017 - is expected to grow by another 28,500 by 2020. Already, there were 13,200 infocomm job vacancies in 2017.
To meet the growing demand for these professionals, local universities have in recent years expanded their intake of students studying computing-related courses. Latest figures released by the Ministry of Education (MOE) showed the intake for information technology courses across the six autonomous universities had increased by close to 800 in four years, from 1,244 in 2015 to 2,039 in 2018.
While intake has gone up, technology companies and industry experts CNA spoke to said it will still not be enough to meet their manpower needs, particularly in areas such as software development, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. To plug the labour gap, these companies have had to hire from overseas or open offices abroad.
Darius Cheung, the founder of property portal 99.co, said that the increased intake size will not “even make a dent” in meeting demand for tech talent. For him, there has been “no other solution” but to “actively recruit” from overseas, he said.
Many companies also open offices overseas, in countries such as Vietnam where wages are lower, and move some of the web development and technical support work over, said Chia Hock Lai, the president of the Singapore Fintech Association.
But the cost of managing a team remotely can run up, and finding workers with the necessary calibre is another challenge.
“Most would prefer to hire locally if possible,” Mr Chia said, “(but) the supply is not there”.
Unable to rely solely on new hires, companies have also ramped up on training their staff in technical knowledge, said Shinjika Shukla, an associate director of technology practice at recruitment agency Michael Page Singapore. In the present world of rapid technological disruptions, “upskilling and reskilling is non-negotiable”, she said.
For example, banks are sending their non-technical staff to learn programming languages like Python. Last year, the Financial Times reported that JPMorgan Chase made it compulsory for new investment bankers and asset managers to take coding lessons.
However, Ms Shukla noted that the bigger, well-known technology firms - think Facebook or Google - will have it easier when it comes to meeting their headcounts, as they are able to attract workers who are excited by their brand names.
Renzo Taal, the Asia senior vice president of software giant Salesforce, which has 35,000 employees worldwide, said in an e-mail interview with CNA that it has “not had any issues in securing talent and building a strong team here”.
“Singapore offers easy access to talent, as a result of its strong education system, proximity to large Asian markets and progressive regulatory policies,” said Mr Taal.
While the technology space continues to face a labour crunch, there are signs that it could ease as it attracts entrants from other fields.
Take Mr Huang’s colleague Henry Hee, for instance. After graduating from NUS’ Industrial & Systems Engineering programme last year, Mr Hee, 27, applied to join Cynopsis as a software engineer, despite offers from organisations where he did his internship, he said.
The “exciting nature of the jobs” in the technology field and “opportunity to create new things” attracted him, while the pay and career prospects were “icing on the cake”.
Alfred Tang, 29, was working as an analyst at a video game company while studying part-time for his masters in finance at Kaplan. But just a year after he received his degree in 2018, he went back to school, knowing his growing interest in technology would pay off.
Mr Tang enrolled in General Assembly’s three-month-long Data Science immersive course this May, and secured a spot as a data science intern at foodtech startup Ai Palatte.
There is also a Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) for mid-career workers to join the infocomm technology sector offered by Workforce Singapore. The programme equips professionals keen to enter the industry but lack the relevant experience and skills by undergoing training and job placements.
According to Workforce Singapore's director of creative & professional services division Selena Huynh, since 2016, more than 800 have taken up infocomm technology PCPs. Digital marketing and data analytics roles are some of the more popular ones among the jobseekers.
In response to CNA’s queries on how the country can boost the number of professionals in the infocomm industry, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) said “the most important part of our tech development strategy is to nurture our local talent pool”.
The ministry pointed to the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) initiative, which was launched at the 2016 Budget. Training courses for professionals interested or already in the industry, including the PCP form part of the wide-ranging initiative.
Between April 2016 and September 2019, under the initiative, more than 93,000 training places have been taken up or committed, and over 5,000 companies have used it to upskill their existing workforce or employing trained local individuals in ICT, IMDA said. Outside of the TeSA initiative, scholarships for tech-related studies are also offered, it added.
But industry experts said the tech labour crunch will not affect Singapore's position as Asia's technology capital.
Singapore has other advantages like its well-developed IT infrastructure, business-friendly environment and reputation as the gateway to Asia, said Mr Chia, while the startups will just "source for the necessary talents elsewhere".