The Singaporean tech scene is in an interesting predicament: it has enough investment but is lacking the workforce as they face challenges in hiring talent. This is pretty rare, although not a bad position to be in, particularly if you are a part of Singapore’s growing tech startup scene. Can you imagine if it was announced that Silicon Valley had too much funding but not enough developers or programmers –– people would flock there. In the coming years, the government and businesses need to turn their attention to finding talented individuals to secure Singapore’s startup status.
The background: What caused this imbalance between investment and human resources?
Figures from Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) show that 2019 was a great year for investments, securing around 50% more than they had predicted. The EDB forecast investments of $8-10 billion SGD ($5.9-7.4 billion USD), but ultimately attracted more than $15.2 billion SGD ($11.3 billion USD). Dr Beh Swan Gin, a chairman at EDB, pinned the successful year on not just Singapore’s significance in Asia for global investors, but the country’s overall “competitiveness as a hub for manufacturing, innovation and digital activities.”
This influx of investment is a testament to the progressive attitude the Singaporean government, and Singapore as a whole has to digital entrepreneurship. In 2014 the government launched the Smart Nation Drive, which envisions Singapore as a ‘smart nation’, showcasing tech-based solutions for everything from transport to healthcare. Singapore’s willingness to be at the forefront of technological infrastructure developments makes it an attractive place to invest.
To power this vision, Singapore needs the right talent in its workforce, which is proving challenging to find. The demand for this specialised talent is expected to grow, and, as a response, the education sector has increased the number of university places for students studying computer and tech-related fields. However, they are still not able to produce enough highly-skilled graduates to meet the growing number of vacancies in the sector. The Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has voiced concerns about Singapore’s ageing population not having the relevant specialisations to carry out the vision Singapore has as a tech-forward ‘smart nation’. He has speculated that attracting and hiring overseas talent may be the way forward, although this could prove difficult as the government’s current position is to nurture their own citizens.
The ageing population might also speak to the mismatch between talent and job opportunities, according to data gathered by the job search site Indeed, published in the Straits Times. In February 2019 they recorded jobs in customer service and teaching positions as the most searched and applied for, yet the number one job advertised that had the fewest applicants was for software engineers.
There is not necessarily a lack of Singaporean born talent, however. In the 2000s, before it made itself a honey pot for tech experts and startup investment opportunities, its tech professionals chose to leave the country for more attractive overseas positions. Perhaps the recent culture change might serve to draw some of them back?
What does this mean for the future of tech startups in Singapore?
Singapore boasts one of the healthiest and most attractive startup scenes in Southeast Asia, and its current growth shows no sign of slowing down with record investments in sustainability, biotech, healthcare and food tech startups last year.
Keeping the scene buoyant, attracting and cultivating talent is essential. Beyond encouraging university-level study in the field, there are other solutions, some of which have already been put into play. These include several government-supported initiatives to establish a Singaporean talent pool, such as TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) and Professional Conversion Programmes (PCP), which encourage the existing workforce to retrain and upskill. PCPs offer training in various fields, but there is a significant emphasis on Infocomm technology specialisations, such as software developers, IT systems support engineer, and Cisco Networks. Many companies are also following suit offering internal retraining for staff, to meet the needs of the evolving business landscape.
The Tech@SG programme is an EDB scheme that has the potential to attract overseas startups who will bring their own talent pool with them. The Singaporean government has put a lot of effort into making the country a great place for startups, but little is being done to appeal to the appropriately skilled individuals to integrate into the existing workforce.
An option favoured by industry insiders, such as Soo Boon Koh, co-founder of Singapore-based venture capital firm iGlobe Partners, is to look to the bigger picture. Koh is an advocate for fostering business relationships with surrounding countries in Southeast Asia; she proposes “We have to build our own talent. So I don’t believe that because we are Singaporean, therefore we think that we are better than the Indonesians or Malaysians- we need to cooperate with people.”
The growth of Singapore’s tech startup scene doesn’t seem to be slowing down, but unless it confronts the challenges in hiring talent, it may find itself lagging behind its global and Southeast Asian competition.