Where have all the people gone?

By William Thomas, South-east Asia Director

As a former HR consultant and small business owner, I am still on a lot of mailing lists. This morning I received an email inviting me to “win the war for talent,” and while I don’t really like the use of that term (I’ve been in actual wars, and they are a lot different!) there is no denying that leaders today are fighting hard to find, and keep, the talent they need.

We see this in the tech sector, of course, both the growing need and the challenge of meeting it. Twitter, for example, announced they are doubling the staff at their engineering centre in Singapore to 100 people. Now, an extra 50 people may not sound like much, but you have to wonder: are there 50 unemployed data scientists and machine learning specialists sitting around Singapore, twiddling their thumbs? Probably not. They have to come from somewhere, and since they possess highly desirable skills, they are likely to come at a high cost. Other tech firms have shown they will accommodate the needs of today’s talent market: news reports last week indicated Amazon will double their base pay cap for employees, and Yahoo Japan is telling employees they can work anywhere in the country, an expansion of existing arrangements and a reversal of Yahoo’s 2013 decision that working from home is not viable.

It is not just the tech sector, of course; an article in The Economist this month noted that as countries in Asia start reopening to tourists, staffing the hospitality sector is going to be a problem. As hotels, restaurants, and tourism-related business try to staff up, they are finding that many of the foreign workers upon whom they rely are no longer in the country, and bringing them back remains a challenge as border restrictions and a focus on hiring locally continue.

Sometimes the challenge is just finding the number of people to fill open spots. The head of HR for a major airline once shared with me that “we have to find new ways of working, because we have more people retiring than we have coming in.” Sometimes the challenge is finding the right skills, even if there are enough applicants. Vietnam, for example, is trying to encourage more foreign companies to invest in the country, but the government worries that foreign language skills among the population will hurt that plan. The skills mismatch is different in different markets: the OECD reports that Malaysia has a shortage of low-skill workers, a surplus of middle-skill employees, and just enough high-skilled folks, while Thailand saw a shortage of both high-skill and low-skill workers.

One way to avoid the recruiting battles is to hold onto the people you have, but that is proving difficult, too. While Asia does not seem to be seeing “The Great Resignation” on the same scale as the United States, we still see many employees reprioritising their work relative to other parts of their lives as a result of their pandemic experiences. The pandemic may also have damaged relationships between employers and employees; retrenchments and other measures may have been necessary, and the way they were handled can affect your ability to retain the employees you still have and recruit to start refilling your empty positions. Employee engagement, always a challenge in Asia and a potential drag on retention, faces new challenges as working environments continue to evolve.

How to respond? Good question. There are practices that may be uniquely helpful to your industry or in a particular market, while there are other ideas that can be used in many different situations. We are going to discuss this exact issue at a luncheon session in Singapore on 17 February and a breakfast event in Kuala Lumpur on 22 February. Come join us for a more in-depth discussion of what’s happening and what to do about it, and take away some ideas that you can go back and discuss with your leadership team. I hope to see you there!!