The big technology players appear to be heeding the Singapore government’s call to boost the republic’s skills across the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Google, for example, has invested heavily in engineering talent, having bought local business messaging startup Pie earlier this year. The company’s nine engineers all immediately started work in Google’s office.
Just three months later, Twitter got into the act. It announced plans to assemble a data science engineering team in Singapore, its first such unit based outside the US.
The company has said it will be sourcing local candidates with diverse skillsets, including those with educational backgrounds in STEM fields and skills in coding and statistics. It conducted its first “tech talk” event with more than 240 potential recruits in May.
STEM skills, according to Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, are making a resurgent comeback of sorts.
While officiating the opening of Singapore University of Technology and Design’s (SUTD) new East Coast campus last year, he said STEM skills would be instrumental in elevating Singapore’s economy from “Third-World” to “First-World” status.
He said there was a heavy emphasis on STEM education during the early era of industrialisation, to generate individuals with the hard skills to be engineers and technicians.
However, Lee says a generational shift has occurred since then, whereby students who have grown up in a more developed economy begin to show interest in other fields.
“I’m glad that the trend is showing some signs of reversing, and that STEM courses and jobs are getting attractive again,” he said.
Where are the STEM talents?
While efforts are well underway to make STEM roles a more attractive career proposition for young talent, HR practitioners and business owners tell HRM Asia there is a current shortage of these skills in the Singapore market.
Sureash Kumar, Global Director – Talent Management of semiconductor firm UTAC, says local Singaporeans have tended to shy away from the manufacturing and semiconductor industry.
However, he notes that elsewhere in Asia-Pacific, supply of engineering talent is meeting the also high demand.
The local talent scarcity in Singapore is also very much apparent to Terence Teo, Managing Director of Anewtech, an integrated platform solutions SME provider in Southeast Asia.
“There is a shortage of local STEM talent in Singapore as engineering courses have not been taking in a lot of local candidates,” he says.
“The reason is that the engineering and technical field has a lower return (in terms of salaries) compared to the financial and banking field, or even the property and insurance field.”
This problem is all the more exacerbated by the reduction in foreign talent available for Singapore. What was once a steady and sufficient stream of STEM skills has now been curtailed by the Singapore government’s tightening of foreign labour quotas.
Another bugbear for Teo is the limited pool of local STEM graduates, especially in the software developing scene.
He says many SMEs encounter difficulties when venturing into core product developments, due to the limited resources and manpower.
“It is very difficult to develop a robust effort,” he says. “The only way is to source directly from the universities or tertiary institutions during the students’ internship programmes or project presentations.”
See: Salaries of Employees in the Technology Sector in Singapore is Projected to Increase by 4.4% in 2017
One acronym, different fields
Although STEM comprises of sciences, technology, engineering and mathematical fields, Lynette Tan, Director, Singapore Space and Technology Association (SSTA), cautions that organisations cannot expect talents to be masters of each niche craft.
“It would be unrealistic to expect all facets of STEM to be encompassed in a single talent,” she says.
“A mathematician may not make a good engineer; an engineer may not make a good scientist; and vice versa. A technologist may not also be the best mathematician.”
While STEM fields have many linkages between, Tan says they are still distinctly different.
Teo warns that it can be difficult to scope out STEM candidates and try to fit their academic qualifications to the job designation.
He says this is because the majority of studies in different fields only touch the surface when compared to, for example, delivering solutions or creating real world working products.
“Most of the engineering courses tend to encompass the foundation of all STEM skillsets, especially in their first two years,” says Teo.
“I feel that engineering and maths are two really distinct areas.”
Due to the vast and complex nature of roles in these fields, as well as the sheer number of industries that require them, Kumar says it is virtually impossible to cater to all industry needs.
Rather, he stresses that at the foundational level, educational institutions should focus on producing holistic graduates who are adeptly skilled in both technical and behavioural competencies.
“Those with transferable skills at the workplace would also add value, as the required on-the-job training and certifications can address the technical aspects for these roles,” says Kumar.
Grooming STEM talents
To compensate for the lack of skilled and highly-niched STEM talents, organisations are pushing ahead with their own initiatives to foster an ecosystem laden with vibrant and future-ready workers.
SSTA aims to instill a “deep STEM” culture even outside of its own industry. It is driving several public initiatives, including one aimed at nine-year-olds.
“We leverage on the inspiring theme of space and space exploration to bring STEM to our members,” says Tan.
SSTA is also developing a professional curriculum to bring STEM topics and learning to adults and professionals of all ages.
As part of her job scope, Tan regularly meets leaders from similar organisations in Europe, Australia and China, with whom SSTA is developing its professional development programme.
She says SSTA also receives numerous résumés from STEM talents, which are then passed on to the organisation’s corporate members.
“The résumés come from Europe, US, Asia and locally, of course,” she says. “Individuals get to know SSTA through our programmes, and the motivated ones will take a step further to send us their résumés, indicating clearly their technical background and what they want to do next.
“These are usually very serious engineers who want to be part of something evolving and growing.”
Anewtech employees enjoy specialist and structured STEM-related training throughout their careers with the business.
For example, the company’s technical teams are scheduled to attend training at its supplier’s factory next month. They will be inculcated with the core debugging skills required for the IT platforms and products that Anewtech develops in Singapore.
The company is also a big proponent of participating in technology conferences and trade exhibitions.
“For more than 12 years, we have been exhibiting in telecommunications, broadcast and information communication technology events and it is through these shows that we continue to acquire and engage with STEM graduates within the community,” says Teo.
Anewtech is further working to develop future STEM talents.
On top of its regular internship programmes with polytechnics, the organisation sends its HR Director to university open house events where students showcase their STEM-related projects.
“By talking to some of these graduates and looking at their project prototypes, it allows the HR Director to have a better understanding of the skillsets that these graduates have, and to see if those skills are relevant to our context,” he says.
With engineering being a critical function of UTAC, the organisation has constructed a specific key performance indicator when it comes to the retention of this group of talents.
The company’s engagement and pulse survey has a specific sub-report that focuses on its engineering group. It is also in the midst of developing a specific technical career path for its staff in this field.
The organisation is an Approved Training Organisation, and accredited to deliver Workforce Skills Qualifications courses for the continuous development of its engineering personnel.
Selected UTAC employees are also regularly dispatched for external training, conferences and industry-related symposiums to keep abreast of the latest trends and advancements in their respective fields.
UTAC is also heavily investing resources in developing the next generation of STEM talent.
For instance, the company collaborates with universities, polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education to connect with young talents through job fairs, internships programmes, and industrial visits.
In particular, UTAC has recently partnered with Nanyang Technological University to offer internship places for its engineering students in specific disciplines. “This will be a long term partnership,” says Kumar.
Stuck in STEM?
Are science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talents only masters in the respective fields?
According to Lynette Tan, Director, Singapore Space and Technology Association, STEM talents often get “stuck” in their engineering or scientific work only.
However, she argues that businesses will find that many STEM talents, with enough exposure, will do extremely well in far broader roles, such as project management, business development, and even sales and marketing.
“These are people with probably very good product knowledge, and they are able to understand the technical requirements, project timelines and operational challenges,” says Tan.
“So actually, we should take advantage of their strong knowledge to groom them into other positions.”
“Of course, there are individuals who prefer to stick to their STEM work, and there is nothing wrong with that,” adds Tan.
Article first appeared on HRM Asia.
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