Commentary: The future is tech but where is Singapore’s engineering and IT talent?

Commentary: The future is tech but where is Singapore’s engineering and IT talent?

The number of graduates from STEM disciplines has fallen over the same period, even as the number of STEM jobs has surged, says Randstad’s Clarence Quek.

Dyson - Fluid Dynamics Lab 01
Out of Singapore: The Dyson Supersonic hair dryer and other products. (Photo: Dyson)

SINGAPORE: What if I told you there is one sector in Singapore with fascinating careers and persistent vacancies? If I asked you to guess what degree could land you a role there, what would your answer be?

Did you say a business degree? Many people think that gives them the best shot at a highly-paid and stable job, and have staked their education on it.

The share of graduates with a business-related degree has increased since 2008, according to the Manpower Ministry’s Labour Force reports, owing particularly to more private education institutions offering business courses.

But the answer is not a business degree. It’s a STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degree.

And yet, the number of graduates from STEM disciplines has fallen over the same period, even as the number of STEM jobs has surged.

Peek inside Dyson's R&D facility in Singapore
A peek inside Dyson's R&D facility in Singapore. (Photo: Dyson)

Dyson plans to increase the number of electronic engineers in Singapore as the company shifts from mechanical engineering to software and electronics, according to CEO Jim Rowan. Grab plans to double its headcount and house 3,000 employees by 2020 in its new One-North headquarters.

A report by Glassdoor in 2018 further highlights how tech hiring has outpaced the finance sector’s. There were 4,715 unique jobs available within the finance industry compared to the 5,806 open technology roles from January to November 2018.

This dwindling number of STEM graduates, coupled with a rising number of STEM roles, is widening the tech talent gap in our local market.

TALENT, OUR LIMITING FACTOR

While Singapore boasts of attractive Intellectual Property laws and low corporate tax rates, our small pool of STEM talent may be the factor that sets us back in the race to become the most innovative market in this region.

Companies looking to expand their businesses in other countries often look at the capabilities of the local talent pool.

A woman works on her computer in San Francisco
A woman works on her computer in San Francisco, California, U.S., July 16, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Gabrielle Lurie)

A city with a higher proportion of STEM talent will undoubtedly be more appealing. One with a flexible manpower and immigration policy that can issue fuss-free and fast-tracked work visas to highly-skilled talent is also seen favourably.

For these reasons, world capitals such as New York, Zurich and even countries like Estonia are highly attractive to global tech companies and start-ups.

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Almost one in four of all graduates in Dublin, Ireland has a STEM-related degree. The country also saw a 34 per cent increase in graduates with ICT qualifications from 2017 to 2018, expanding their qualifying talent pool.

In New York, more than eight in 10 graduates from Cornell Tech are in full-time tech roles. Almost one in six are tech start-up founders.

A SKILLS GAP

The poor talent pipeline and shortage of skilled tech professionals in Singapore has been driven by attitudes.

When asked which fields would lead to satisfying careers, only 9 to 18 per cent said physical science, mathematics, life sciences or engineering, according to a recent 3M global science perception survey.

This is despite nine in 10 acknowledging that science is needed to solve global challenges and agreeing that they wished they knew more about science.

A passer-by looks at her mobile phone as people take a selfie photo using a smartphone in Singapore
A file photo of Singapore's central business district skyline on May 10, 2019. (File photo: Reuters/Kevin Lam)

But the job market has shifted. In recent years, the digital transformation of our economies, brought on by huge leaps in technology, has seen a rising demand for tech professionals.

OPPORTUNITIES IN ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY

Technology is revolutionising a plethora of fields.

Researchers are developing cost-efficient and effective medtech solutions to help patients afford better care.

Blockchain can help financial firms ensure seamless and ethical money transfers. Agritech companies are rushing to find environmentally sustainable solutions and healthier produce so that future generations can still call Earth their home.

The future of work will be driven by technology, as data unleashes new uses and the Internet of Things has the potential to transform lives. Technology literacy will be the order of the day.

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But there is a severe lack of skilled STEM talent in Singapore that can realise technology’s potential and find new commercialisable uses, specifically in innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and computer vision (including facial recognition programmes).

DIFFICULTIES IN HIRING

A talent gap is emerging. About 56 per cent of employers in Singapore reported difficulties in recruiting in the IT and engineering sector, according to the Manpower Group’s 20128 talent shortage survey.

Despite the urgent need for talent, we have also noticed a delay in hiring STEM candidates. What used to take four to eight weeks for a hire, can now span three months.

Singapore is one of the world's most Internet-savvy societies, offering broadband speeds envied
Office workers in Singapore's Raffles Place financial district. (File photo: AFP)

Companies wait for more job applicants before they shortlist people. Candidates are also assessed for their technical capabilities during the interview process to see if they can hit the ground running.

Despite this trend, business-related courses remain wildly popular to much regret. Three in four local respondents to our survey said that they would focus on a field of study within STEM if they were 18 again.

We can’t turn back time. But the responsibility to help the next generation of youths make more informed education decisions falls on us.

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Exposing youths to a wide range of career options and helping them realise the equally exceptional roles in the tech industry can motivate them to pursue a STEM career.

Our youths must have the skills to leverage new technologies, and push the envelope in innovation and enterprise development.

WHY LIBERALISING FOREIGN TALENT IN TECH WORTH PURSUING

This problem is not unique to Singapore but has the potential to limit the country’s prospects as competition for global talent heats up.

Indeed, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing highlighted the high stakes involved on Monday (Sep 2) in answering a related parliament question.

A new scheme to help technology firms here hire foreign talent will help Singapore gain an edge in a global economy that is becoming heavily reliant on technology, but is facing a worldwide shortage of tech talent. Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said this on Monday (Sep 2), in response to a Parliamentary question about the necessity of the scheme to help tech firms hire foreign talent in light of the current economic conditions and the focus on the Singaporean Core.

“Deep tech industries and companies are the linchpin for the future economy. Singapore must develop our tech ecosystem and ride this growth, to create more opportunities for Singaporeans,” he said.

In this regard, it is useful that EDB and Enterprise Singapore recently announced the Tech@SG pilot programme in July 2019 to court the cream of foreign talent with the aim of accelerating Singapore’s innovation agenda.

READ: Commentary: Beyond loans and grants, Singapore entrepreneurs should seek out equity investments to grow their companies

It allows qualifying high-potential tech firms with at least S$10 million in raised venture capital in select verticals to enjoy greater flexibility in their Employment Pass applications.

Such a move will support start-ups in emerging areas, where talent and specialisation in Singapore is still scarce, while ring-fencing these relaxed rules.

The hope may be for this to be a temporary solution. When companies in these highly-innovative sectors hire foreign experts with a proven track record of developing and launching successful projects, locals have an opportunity to collaborate, learn and upskill.

Matching foreign talent with local talent gives start-ups best chance to level up rapidly.

Foreign talent can act as consultants or drive the development of products. Meanwhile, Singaporeans can advise on conditions in the local environment as they have a better understanding of the practical and regulatory challenges involved in developing commercialisable solutions.

We have already seen these partnerships play out in a couple of local fintech and e-commerce start-ups, including RedMart and TradeGecko.

IS IT NECESSARY FOR FOREIGN TECH TO DRIVE INNOVATIONS?

Start-ups face immense hurdles hiring talent as they have yet to establish an attractive employer brand or a recognisable product. The long-drawn process of finding and re-locating a top-notch talent from one city to another may also take up valuable time.

man in front of computer, coding, programming
(Photo: Unsplash/Arif Riyanto)

A self-sustaining tech ecosystem will require good people who can bring ideas to life – both foreigners and locals. We must expect more skilled talent from all over the world to work in the same offices in the future.

The other hope is for initiatives like Tech@SG to draw more locals into the tech ecosystem as they get the chance to work alongside some of the world’s best talent, so that the programmes can eventually be grandfathered. That in turn will depend on the results these start-ups produce.

Clarence Quek is a Senior Client Solutions Director at Randstad Singapore specialising in human capital solutions for Information Technology companies and start-up firms in Singapore.

Source: CNA/sl

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