The dearth of development talent in Singapore is something every tech startup founder can relate to. Find suitable talent with relevant industry experience and they will inevitably be asking for much more than you are able to pay.
So you look to fresh graduates instead. But fresh graduates, even those who have good degrees in Computer Science, often do not actually have much real experience working on a product. Despite that, the greater demand versus supply for tech talent means that they will still be asking for more than you are able (or, in this case, willing) to pay.
This is when many employers look for talent overseas, developers who have the requisite experience and who command lower salaries than their Singaporean counterparts. But what happens when the government tightens immigration rules in their attempts to appease Singaporeans who want to have greater job protection? Wouldn’t the hiring process be made much less difficult for the tech startup industry if they could hire anyone who were fit for the job, regardless of their nationality?
While having less stringent criteria for foreign software engineers could be part of the solution to the problem, after assisting in HR operations at my first tech startup for several months, it became clear that more can be done to guide the existing developer talent pool in Singapore.
Students show lack of personal interest in programming
A significant part of my efforts to attract developer talent to our startup involved hiring interns. This meant going to universities, participating in career fairs and speaking to students about our company.
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My experience at one of the four autonomous universities in Singapore was particularly telling of the personal interest many students had in software engineering. The career fair was designed to help them find suitable internships–a requirement for graduation in their 4-year programme–and attendance had been made mandatory for first years, with the intention of exposing them to the working world in advance.
While many students did express interest in obtaining an internship, their lack of interest in programming was clear. When asked what sorts of languages they were familiar with, the first years would reply, with awkward smiles on their faces, that they had not learnt any yet. They would then explain that their university curriculum only offered them Python the following semester. Imagine a first year creative writing major without a single piece of creative work.
After hearing many such replies, I wondered if I was asking the wrong question. Perhaps these students were not confident of the languages they did know, because they had not learnt them in an official capacity. So I asked if they had undertaken any personal projects, or if they had started exploring on their own. Still the answer was “no”. In fact, a significant number of third or fourth year students had not undertaken any projects that were not part of a school assignment.
Given that coding has become a highly-valued, highly-remunerated skill in the job market, even those who have little interest in programming would pursue a degree that teaches it for the abundance of job opportunities and the favourable wages. As with any other skill, however, programming requires practice. Students who lack interest are unlikely to seek out additional opportunities for themselves to do so. This means that employers, who are already facing a tech labour crunch, will find it even tougher to find employees with suitable experience. Startups, in particular, who are less likely to be able to pay a competitive salary, end up having to settle for less.
Fresh graduates lack industrial experience
If we found hiring interns difficult, hiring full-time permanent staff was even more challenging. Many of the resumes we received from fresh graduates in tech lacked real working experience, which is perhaps to be expected, given the attitudes expressed by the first years I spoke to at the career fair.
It certainly does not help that industrial experience was not a requirement for graduation at some schools until several years ago. The National University of Singapore, for an example, only made this mandatory for the Computer Science cohort of 2014/2015, which is due to graduate in 2018/2019 on a four-year course. The change in requirements are a step in the right direction but our tech industry will have to wait until their graduation to see its effects.
In addition to compulsory industrial experience requirements, 25 sectors in ITE and polytechnics, including Infocomm Technology, are also part of the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programme (ELP). Employers looking for tech talent can sign up for the programme and be matched with students who have some of the necessary skills, furnishing them with the rest of the skills needed for the job by providing them with on-the-job training. Grants are also provided by the government to defray some of the costs of hiring an employee who is not fully equipped with the skills the company wants. This is an amenable solution for startups, provided that they have in-house developers who have the capacity to train students on the ELP.
Top talents leave Singapore or join MNCs
While first year students attending career fairs may show some interest in joining startups, top graduates from Singapore still prefer to join established tech companies, and will leave the country to do so. After all, who doesn’t want to be a part of Google, Amazon, Microsoft or Facebook?
The prevailing perception remains that established companies are a better choice because they are more well-recognised, provide higher wages and more benefits and are better for career progression. Since Singaporeans as a whole still remain risk averse, with small appetites for beginning one’s own startup, the idea that joining a startup after graduation could act as a primer to starting their own company also appeals little to them.
While immigration requirements can be slackened to bring in more talent from foreign countries, such a solution has political and societal consequences that must be factored into the government’s decision-making. Before such decisions are made, however, the problem of startups facing a labour crunch in tech talent can also be ameliorated by changing the way students think about startups and about working in Singapore, emphasising the importance of gaining relevant working skills and by encouraging students to pursue additional projects in their own time based on their areas of interest.
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