How to compete and win in the global war for talent

Companies should invest heavily in their employees, involve them in decision-making and give them due credit for their contributions

The Business Times recently posed four questions on the topic of talent retention and attraction - a pressing issue for companies big and small, especially amid the ongoing manpower crunch - to three industry leaders in this virtual roundtable.


  • Victor Khaw, general manager, AllAlloy Dynaweld
  • Varian Loke, director, World Metal Recovery
  • Rachel Lee, HR business partner, ShopBack

Moderator: Lee U-Wen, BT Correspondent

1. There is a global war for talent going on, and the disruption that's taking place in many sectors makes things even more challenging and competitive for companies. How does your organisation ensure that it is able to always attract the best people?

Victor Khaw: For an SME, we must accept that the best talent will always go to the MNCs or larger organisations. Ask yourself: If your children do very well academically, do you wish for them to join a big firm or an SME?

However, if you can look beyond academic achievements, there are still many talents available for a specific role in your organisation, and I'm referring to our polytechnic graduates.

An SME can support its employees to upgrade, such as from the Institute of Technical Education certificate to a polytechnic diploma, or from a polytechnic diploma to a university degree.

They can do this for their top performers using both the company's resources and tap on government schemes such as the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) scheme or SkillsFuture.

This will create a culture in the company that can assist in attracting the better polytechnic graduates and it will help to build loyalty too.

That being said, it is important that an SME can differentiate itself from the thousands of others elsewhere by achieving success and having positive publicity. Try to be a "branded" SME in order to attract good people.

Varian Loke: With the global market slowing down, both SMEs and MNCs are going through a tough time with their recruitment efforts.

At World Metal, we believe that all of our staff are important assets. We want people who are willing to progress and grow together with us, so we offer many opportunities for career advancement.

A growing company like ours is more likely to attract good people because we offer more flexibility and job diversity, as well as room for growth. We do our best to show how their skills can contribute to the overall success of the business.

Rachel Lee: Having an "A-team" in place is very attractive, especially for senior hires. Our current team consists of e-commerce leaders from established organisations such as McKinsey, Alibaba and Rocket Internet.

We believe in exhibiting strong leadership and sincerity. Our co-founder and CEO is very hands-on with talent acquisition and often goes the extra mile to close great candidates. He spent 18 months to bring in our current chief commercial officer, who was formerly the managing director of Zalora South-East Asia.

Then there are the "push" factors. We have an aggressive and driven talent acquisition team that looks all over the world to ensure a pipeline of top talent. We also make effective use of a variety of recruitment channels and networks.

2. A recent survey by Adecco Singapore found that the average length of stay for millennials in a company is just two years. How can companies in general retain their younger top performers, and prevent them from hopping over to the next better offer?

Victor: Providing academic upgrades is important because you create loyalty among your employees when they upgrade their skills and qualifications.

We believe in creating a close working culture so that everyone feels that they belong, a culture that the company is willing to learn and to change when necessary.

A person's performance is more important than his or her seniority. More importantly, pay them fairly and include performance incentives to reward performance. In that way, there aren't really any better offers out there for them to consider.

Varian: We believe that creating an environment that makes your employees feel like an asset to your company often encourages goal-setting and lets them make their own choices as often as possible.

A boss must always give feedback on work performance and be willing to listen to his employees' concerns. Chance meetings in the hallway where social greetings are exchanged are good, but these do not replace sitting down face-to-face to discuss any work-related matters.

Be open and listen to new ideas. Accept suggestions for problem-solving, provide opportunities to grow and learn, and let your employees know there is room for advancement. Let them know what career development plans you may have for them and what opportunities are available for them to grow together with the company.

Recognise and reward good work. Monetary bonuses are always nice, but recognition of a job well done goes a long way to creating goodwill and loyalty.

Recognition needs to be specific - saying "good job" to someone is acceptable, but "good job on the Nelson project" is better. In order to retain talent, you must make them feel appreciated and respected.

Rachel: ShopBack is essentially run by millennials. We are motivated not by better offers, but opportunities to learn and make an impact.

We give our staff personal learning and development and this has proven to be a great retention strategy. Our employees stay challenged. They are given responsibilities that lead to an accelerated learning curve. Guidance and mentorship from strong leaders are important too.

Investing in company culture keeps the team together. ShopBackers are not just colleagues, but friends who enjoy one another's company.

3. How do you keep employees motivated in their jobs, and how highly does the on-the-job training and skills upgrading rank in your company?

Victor: The oil and gas (O&G) industry has slowed considerably, although there are signs showing that some parts of O&G activity have picked up. Slightly more than half of our business is in O&G, and staff morale is lower due to this.

Since all of us have less to do in Singapore these days, we made use of the situation to study and launch our overseas set-up using our current team. We did a joint venture in Indonesia and a startup in Myanmar last year.

Everyone in AllAlloy is incentivised based on their performance and the company's performance. As a welding solution provider, we are a technical company and skills upgrading is crucial to us. It is conducted about four to five times a year, mainly by overseas specialists from our principals' companies.

Welding engineering is not taught in most polytechnics or universities in the region, so we have to train our new engineers in welding technology.

Varian: We believe that by joining our company, employees are willing to learn. We provide supportive leadership by recognising that their efforts contribute to the business, such as giving bonuses or appraisals when these are due.

Another effective way is to hand over responsibilities that they can be accountable for, so they can hold themselves to high standards.

Creating a positive environment is also essential since the workplace is almost like a second home. We share information and knowledge, and minimise the hierarchy levels to allow employees to get comfortable. Most information in our company is transparent and this allows employees to know what is going on in the business.

Rachel: It's about providing good challenges, ensuring strong team relationships, and motivating and uniting them with a bigger vision.

On-the-job training ranks very highly in ShopBack. Due to the lightning pace of our industry, we are expected to learn quickly and perform on the job.

For instance, our first Indonesian hire entered as a fresh graduate. Under direct mentorship from our co-founders, she has picked up various skills across a variety of functions (marketing campaigns, business development, coding) within months. She is currently one of the key leaders in the Indonesia team. 

Skills upgrading is highly treasured as well. Our engineers are encouraged to be at the forefront of tech innovation. We support them in learning new skills, coding languages, frameworks adoption and so on.

4. There's a lot of talk these days about the need to have more females in the echelons of management. The Diversity Action Committee also recently announced a plan to encourage more women on the board of companies in Singapore. What's your take on this, and what steps can companies take to have women play a greater role?

Victor: I agree that having diversity is very important. However, the maternity instinct is also very important, especially here in Singapore where there is a need to boost the total fertility rate. Most of our female colleagues who have young children are on reduced working hours so that they can look after their children, and we fully support this.

Because of this, many women have deferred the opportunity to go for an academic or skills upgrade due to their commitment to their children and families.

We will still support them in their upgrading if they want to. We encourage this, although we must recognise that by the time they have the necessary skills to lead, they will be in their late-40s, instead of late-30s for men. So the number of women available for leadership positions will always be fewer than the men.

Varian: We see that more women are in the workforce today, especially in management roles. In management, we do not exclude women as they are important to our company's diversity. We find that women are better listeners and they have the ability to multi-task.

Companies in general should look at the requirements for the positions they need to fill, and weigh the pros and cons of hiring either gender.

Rachel: ShopBack is meritocratic in its hiring and promoting decisions. We hire the individual who can drive tangible and desirable outcomes in specific functions. Factors such as gender, race, age or nationality are not pertinent to us. We are gender-neutral, and that 50:50 ratio applies for leadership positions as well. 

For companies, it's simple. Always go back to the first principles. Focus on qualities that truly matter for the role.

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