It is now common knowledge that when it comes to the “war for talent” engineers and data scientists have become the hottest resource globally. With the accelerating adoption of digital technology and the rise of Artificial Intelligence, the pressure on the talent market for technical skills has vastly increased. Yet, most employers are “unprepared” and struggle to fill jobs as positions demanding technical skills surge. This is not just due to a shrinking pipeline – with a decreased desire for students to pursue engineering as a profession – but to a competitive landscape that has dramatically changed over the last few years.
Industries that were never a career option for engineers are now being digitalized, forcing them to compete with industries who for years have been the top recruiters for engineering and IT majors. Similarly, technology and engineering manufacturing companies – who were always the natural choice for technical talent – find themselves competing with Banks, Government Agencies, and the many rising startups that are now pulling engineers out of traditional jobs.
Today, every organization needs engineering talent at the helm of all its cross-functional transformation projects. This is especially true for talent who combine soft and hard skills to design, manage and deliver complex products in a team setting. However, the overall quality of engineering candidates is something companies are often struggling with. Education and experience mismatch lead to the rise of ‘paper tigers’ – candidates who look strong on their curriculum vitae but, in reality, lack many of the skills that would make them employable. Just recently, a study by Aspiring Minds found that 95 percent of engineers in India are unfit for software development jobs.
Singapore is not a stranger to this challenge, and as more and more organizations are setting up engineering offices in the city-state – most recently Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, Palantir, Paypal and Yahoo – the Government understands the shrinking pool of technical talent poses a national risk.
With Singapore rapidly turning into a “smart nation,” technical talent is more in demand than ever and engineering is among the major professions in Singapore with the most vacancies. This has prompted PM Lee Hsien Loong to highlight, in several occasions, the need to grow the pool of engineers and rethink the value of engineering. He acknowledged that even though Singapore was built on the backs of engineers, it has since become harder to attract top students to study engineering and do engineering jobs, as many opt for the humanities, business and finance.
“One contributing factor may be that there is now a much wider variety of career options than there used to be. Jobs, today, are much more multi-disciplinary in nature and there is quite simply a much wider choice of what students can both study and work in after they graduate,” said Professor Anjam Khursheed, Director of the Engineering Science Programme at NUS. “One initiative being taken at NUS is to introduce more combinations of subjects that can be taken with engineering. Changes to the curriculum are being made so it will be easier to combine the study of engineering with other subjects, such as those in business, science and the humanities.”
To encourage more students to study engineering and to work as engineers in the industry after they graduate, the Public Service Division has been re-evaluating the career path of engineers working in public-sector agencies and government-linked companies to make it more attractive for current employees and new hires. In April last year, during the Committee of Supply, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean announced a series of initiatives to strengthen Engineering as a career in the Singapore Public Service.
These include raising salaries for serving engineers and increasing starting salaries for engineering graduates by an average of 20% (starting at $3,800/$4,000 per month), offering strong learning and development opportunities for them to build deep technical expertise throughout their careers, and expanding the scope of existing technical leadership positions such as Chief Engineer and Chief Technology Officer whilst creating new ones.
The Singapore Government’s focus to build engineering capabilities has led to strong interest in Public Service careers – over 1,000 engineers were recruited in 2016, bringing the total close to 9,000.
According to the 2017 Most Attractive Employer Survey by Universum, global leader in employer branding and talent strategy, 28 percent of engineering students in Singapore aspire to work for the Singapore Government or a state- owned company upon graduation (only 6 percentage points short of the number of students who want to work for MNCs, who in the past years attracted the largest number of Singaporean students).
This is particularly indicative of commitment and progress, especially at a time when most governments around the world starve for digital expertise and thousands of jobs are opening up as a result of Baby Boomers retiring from the workforce. Even the United States Government, viewed as extremely attractive when Millennials first entered the workforce (thanks, in part, to the many TV shows that portrayed the US federal agencies as a “sexy” employer, a place where one can change the world while working with extremely attractive people in super innovative facilities) has been recently losing its allure. The exit of Millennials from the federal workforce, caused the percentage of employees under the age of 30 to drop to 7% in 2013.
With Millennials and Generation Z constituting more than 75 percent of the workforce over the next 5-10 years, organizations who fail to understand them are bound to face major challenges when it comes to securing their future talent pipeline. Furthermore, the talent landscape has significantly evolved over the last few years. Students no longer choose an employer based on the industry or corporate brand, but based on its culture, its environment and its purpose. They believe that work should be part of who they are – not just a way to make a living – and expect employers to embrace the complexity of their lives. This is particularly true to Engineering talent who – aware that they are in high demand – only look at organizations who motivate them to do their best work, display the right values, culture and opportunity for intellectual and personal development.
In Singapore, 3474 Engineering/IT students from NUS, NTU, SIM, SMU who answered questions about their career preferences, expectations, employment related drivers and ideal employers in the 2017 Universum talent study, chose work-life balance as their top career goal, followed by security and stability in their job and being dedicated to a cause or feel they are serving the greater good.
All things they believe they can achieve by working for the Singapore Government. Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), Ministry of Education (MOE), Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), Ministry of Health (MOH), Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) are perceived as the top 10 employers in Singapore most associated with Secure Employment. And by secure employment, students don’t simply refer to the stability of the industry, as much as the ability to learn and grow in a supportive environment where they are free to be themselves without the fear of being “thrown out.”
When it comes to those employer characteristics that are most important to technical students in Singapore – Friendly Working Environment, Professional Training and Development and Leaders Who Support My Development – MSF, MCCY, MOE, MINDEF and MHA rank in the Top 5.
This perception is aligned with the Employer Value Proposition of the Singapore Public Service, which lies in Purpose, Community and Growth. Particularly when it comes to “growth,” there has been a strong investment in skills development. In the second half of last year, PSD developed competency frameworks across public agencies to articulate the knowledge and skills that public sector engineers require as they progress in their careers. According to DPM Teo, engineers working for the government can use this framework to identify their own training needs and develop expertise and mastery in specific areas. In addition, engineers will also be given greater support in their career development and growth, for example mentoring by senior technical experts, working on exciting inter-agency engineering projects, and networking across the engineering community.
DPM Teo also stated that Singapore is looking forward to partnering with both the private sector and companies in building digital and engineering capabilities in the public sector to further support Singapore’s transformation and the delivery of public services for Singaporeans.
While most governments around the world are associated with bureaucracy, old workforce, and lack of innovation- hence attracting mostly political science and law students – the brand of the Singapore Government is strongly tied to innovation and creativity. This works well with Singaporean Millennials, who want to feel challenged by solving complex problems, being intellectually stimulated and working on novel projects.
“The Singapore Government is highly engaged with the country’s innovation ecosystem. There is hardly an innovation event or initiative where you will not find active participants and contributors from one or more of the Government Agencies.” says Victor Alexiev, Singapore lead for City.AI and Chairman of Innovator SG, a Singapore based innovation management consultancy. “This desire to engage and catalyze is unique to Singapore and speaks to the country’s desire to position itself as a global ‘innovation kampong’. This is extremely appealing to Millennial technical talent who want to feel they are contributing to a grand plan, and adds to their perception that innovation is an integral part of a civil servant’s job.”
This year, in an effort to secure the technical pipeline required to ensure that Singapore continues to be technologically innovative and ahead of the competition regionally and globally, the Government introduced the Public Service Commission Scholarship (Engineering) to pre-tertiary students and undergraduates who are keen to pursue an engineering career in the Public Service, particularly in Defence & Security, Information & Communications, Technology & Smart Systems, and Infrastructure & Environment. Through the scholarship, students can sharpen up their domain skills in public agencies in need of leaders with engineering expertise through dedicated developmental programs, working with experts in the field and close mentorship and guidance on career development.
Finally, the Singapore Government also has an upper hand when it comes to recruiting female engineering talent. Barely a week goes by without hearing about the threat posed to the workforce by the shortage of female engineers and women’s lack of representation in the STEM fields. This will become an even greater challenge with Generation Z. According to UNIVERSUM’S 2016 Gen Z study, 82% of Singaporean Gen Zers between the ages of 15 and 19 will choose their course of study strictly based on their personal interest in the subject and not on the type of career it will lead to.
“The gender gap is very real. The challenge we face is how to encourage and empower women to have a voice in the tech industry,” said Wan Ting Poh, Managing Director at Girls in Tech, a non-profit aimed at exposing girls to the STEM practice. “We are very fortunate that the Singapore Government is so invested in exposing girls to STEM subjects early on and on reducing this gender imbalance. The recent proposal to offer more support to women in the workplace, especially at the senior management level, is a true testament of their commitment.”
According to Universum research, 47 percent of female technical students in Singapore choose the government as their ideal employer (compared to 38 percent of males). This is in part due to the sizeable resources that Singapore has invested in righting the inequality – from government research dollars and scholarships for young women – to employer diversity training programs and leadership development. According to a 2015 survey by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), Singapore has seen a 50 percent increase in women research scientists and engineers holding PhDs since 2010 (2,740 vs 1,729).
The Singapore Government is also strongly linked to Inspiring Purpose, on the rise as one of the most attractive attributes of the ideal employer. Six Government Agencies make up the top 10 list of employers most associated with Inspiring Purpose: MSF, MOE, MCCY, MHA, MFA and MOH. This will represent a significant competitive advantage when the up-and-coming Generation Z – who are heavily driven by the concept of “higher purpose” – will enter the workforce in the next 3-5 years.
Striking the iron while it’s hot, PSD launched a branding campaign last year with the objective of uplifting the profile of engineering professionals, especially in the Public Service. It profiled engineers and their work via an integrated communications campaign through content marketing of human-interest stories on digital platforms. The campaign garnered good traction. The Singapore Government converts an extremely high number of engineering students from sheer interest in the Public Sector to applications. Out of the 3474 Engineering/IT students surveyed by Universum, 64 percent are considering a career with the Public Sector, 41 percent of which think of the Public Sector as an IDEAL Employer and 24 percent of which either applied or will apply to one or more of the Government Agencies. This healthy recruitment funnel led to the Universum Top 50 Ideal Employer Rankings among engineering talent released on May 16th this year, showing six Government Agencies in the Top 25, with A*Star – strongly associated with innovation, creative & dynamic working environment, and professional training & development – topping the list as the second most attractive employer for engineering talent (n. 1 in 2016).
“One major plus point for working in the Civil Service is the multitude of opportunities for you to learn and grow. The Service places much emphasis on talent development, and that means you are given many opportunities to go for training to deepen your knowledge, as well as challenges to hone your skills,” said Gwee Chia Hong, recent graduate from the Engineering Science Program, Faculty of Engineering at NUS. “The Service also encourages balance between work and having fun and provides flexibility in the workplace, allowing employees to manage their time wisely and meet their personal commitments, so long as the work gets done at the end of the day!”
With an increasing number of industries embarking on their digitalization and automation journey, the scarcity of engineering talent will be more and more evident over the next few years. Any country’s Public Service is no stranger to this race for talent, as it cannot afford to fall behind the people and organizations it serves and regulates.
Over the last couple of years, Singapore has provided us with a unique case study where government agencies managed to outcompete lucrative corporate and dynamic start-up jobs for the heart of engineering talent.
How? By clearly articulating and communicating the values of growth, purpose and lifestyle highly desired by the new generations, and shrugging off the classic perspective of rigid, bureaucratic and boring structures.
With an organization’s success heavily depending on its ability to attract, recruit and retain the right people, it is more important than ever for employers to have strong knowledge and understanding of the competitive landscape and the talent they wish to attract, and communicate with them effectively. In that respect, multinationals, local organizations and foreign governments have much to learn from Singapore’s efforts.