Deconstructing Southeast Asia’s tech talent shortage

Southeast Asia’s tech industry is booming thanks to digitalization. The region’s Internet economy was projected to exceed US$100B in gross merchandise value last year – likely due to strong digital push in countries like Singapore. The country was ranked the world’s second most digitally competitive country in the IMD World Digital Competitiveness Ranking 2020, just one spot behind the United States. 

Singapore is also poised to become the Silicon Valley of Asia. Aside from its tech advancements, major tech companies such as Tencent Holdings, Bytedance and Zoom, have either made their way to Singapore or established their regional/global headquarters here in 2020. However, amidst the industry boom, Singapore and Southeast Asia still face a talent crunch issue in their tech sector and it doesn’t seem to be abating just yet.

Technical roles are often the hardest to fill. Recruiters have pointed out that even with many job seekers in the market, the majority of them might not necessarily be equipped with the technical competency required. Border control measures have also exacerbated this issue due to the difficulty in bringing highly sought-after candidates from abroad to meet local demand. With competition for tech talents rising in the region, businesses need to dive deeper into examining the root cause of the existing talent crunch in order to solve this challenge in the long run. 

  1. “I Need Tech Skills to be in Tech”

A common misconception about working in tech is it only welcomes talent with technical skills. This isn’t necessarily true especially if we look at many graduate trainee programmes for fresh graduates. These programs often don’t require candidates to have a specific degree. Moreover, job functions such as Marketing, Finance or Human Resources aren’t technical in nature but such roles are required in a company, tech or not. 

What’s essential is the willingness to learn about the industry and be adaptable. Approximately 40% of our staff in Pure Storage’s Asia Pacific & Japan offices had non-technical backgrounds, be it from school or their previous work places, before joining us. What struck us about them was their work ethics, enthusiasm to learn and join us in our growth journey, as well as their culture fit. 

My personal experience has taught me that a candidate’s barrier to entry in the tech sector isn’t as high as it seems. I wasn’t always in the tech space throughout my career. I’ve had the chance to be a recruiter in a consultancy and a HR lead in a financial institution. There were adjustments to be made but it was more of learning about the company and ensuring we’re aligned on the same mission as we continue to scale globally. 

  1. More Synergies between Corporates and Schools

Careers in tech became more desirable than ever last year among university graduates and local students in Singapore. An annual national graduate careers survey by GTI Media Singapore showed that tech firms rose in rank in 2020, compared to the previous year. This is a good indication that many want to grow their careers in the tech industry. 

However, many school curriculums don’t dive into the technical sophistication that many tech jobs require. It’s encouraging to hear of efforts done between various governments, enterprises and educational institutions to develop tech talent. Pure Good, Pure Storage’s corporate foundation, has started a Workforce Development Initiative, which donated US$1 million to global non-profit organisations that are working toward improving access to jobs for individuals from non-traditional backgrounds and minority populations. The ultimate aim of this initiative is to encourage the provision of training and access to career opportunities leading to a more equitable, diverse global workforce. 

More can be done to expose students to the realities, challenges and opportunities of the business world to equip them with in-demand tech skills. As the actual arena where technological innovations and business implementation meets, more corporations should step up to make this happen to entice more people to want to pursue a STEM career. 

  1. Empowering Talent at Work

While leaders have a responsibility to change the way they nurture talent, it’s also important for professionals in the tech sector to adopt new perspectives and ways of managing our careers. 

For example, Singaporeans are widely seen as highly skilled talent at a mid-career level. However, I’ve observed that many tend to shy away from promoting their strengths and abilities. Many are also less likely to raise their hands to take on larger roles. Such hesitance to move laterally may cause many to miss out on growth opportunities. Some might even leave the field eventually. 

Professionals can no longer sit back and wait for others to take notice of their work, particularly in today’s remote working environment. They need to be more comfortable in articulating what they’re good at and the opportunities they want in order to better compete alongside international talents in global markets like Singapore. This has a two-fold impact – helping to ensure there is a sustainable pipeline of local talent while reducing the high attrition rate in the industry. 

  1. Diversity and Inclusion

With corporations continuing to join the growing international women’s movement and recognise women for their achievements, we are reminded again of the vast inequality which still exists in the tech industry as we entered March this year. Women account for only 32% of Southeast Asia’s tech space. This figure is even lower at the global level with an average of 28%. 

Diversity shouldn’t just be preached but acted upon as well. It has to be addressed both at the C-suite level and as an industry, through ongoing initiatives such as Women in Tech Singapore. Business leaders need to be intentional about incorporating different strengths to balance out weaknesses with a variety of talent backgrounds. After all, a product that meets the needs of diverse customers can only be created by a diverse team. 

Being a truly diverse organization goes far beyond gender. It comes from recognizing people for the breadth of their skills, from members of the LGBTQ+ community to people who are differently abled. This starts right at the beginning, from the use of inclusive language in job ads, to internal training at all levels on the recognition of unconscious bias and embedding it into the company code of conduct.

We’ve observed that a ground-up approach is key to success at Pure. Beyond policies, employee resource groups encourage active participation and advise the leadership team on issues that may be affecting their members’ well-being. These support systems are important in cultivating a safe environment where individuals can thrive and contribute, regardless of their background, ultimately allowing them to progress in their careers and focus on developing their skills. 

What can we do differently?

At the end of the day, companies need to recognise that sustainable success in the hunt for tech talent goes beyond hiring and acquisition. 

The right employee may not need to check all the boxes at once, but must be able to demonstrate the agility and learning capabilities to be part of your team. Companies can then step in to expand core areas of specialization and bridge skill sets, helping technical talent ascend to leadership roles by honing their soft skills and developing them as consultants and business partners. This way, instead of searching for a veritable “unicorn employee”, we can train our own to plug the company’s talent gaps and meet future business needs. 

There’s no shortage of smart, ambitious and eager talent out there, but our current ways of communicating and engaging them need re-examining. We’re entering a golden  age of technology innovation here in Asia and it would be a shame if we were held back by an out-moded perspective on talent.