In Focus: Toby Fowlston, Robert Walters

With Fair Consideration Framework and Foreign Manpower policy going live, Robert Walters’ Managing Director shares his views with Vipanchi on the recruitment industry in Singapore and Asia.

By Vipanchi Dinavahi

How has the recruitment industry transformed in the last 10 years?
There have been a lot of changes across the globe. From the boom of online portals to changes in governments’ policies. We have seen things like the introduction of Linkedin, which certainly has become a lot more prevalent in the last few years, and there has been far more growth in the Recruitment Process Outsourcing (RPO) Market.
The recruitment market in Singapore is becoming extremely competitive; I don’t know the exact number, but there has been a significant increase in the number of recruitment companies set up in Singapore. Big companies who have access to infrastructure funds have built on their internal talent acquisition teams or mandated an RPO provider to come in.
Despite being a relatively a young industry, there has been a lot of growth and is continuously adapting to the changing business needs.
What challenges is the industry facing today?
There are several, from how companies are adapting to business needs and how are they finding people to how they are retaining them.Other factors that add to the challenge are regulatory changes, particularly within the financial services sector and the banking industry. We have seen a lot more changes from the MAS as well.
These challenges have put more pressure on organisations from greater cost perspectives involved in that as well.
How have these impacted the Singapore market?
Despite these changes and challenges, one thing that has remained is that Singapore continues to grow as a key hub for Southeast Asia, and we work every day with companies from all sectors that are still coming to Singapore and setting up their offices here for both Singapore opportunities as well as from a regional perspective. That’s really exciting; I mean, there are a lot of people who recognise increase in costs, but know that this is an extremely good place to do business.
You mentioned government policies earlier. What impact do the Fair Consideration Framework and Foreign Manpower policy have on businesses in Singapore?
The principle behind fair consideration—Singaporeans being fairly considered for opportunities here—is absolutely right. There are fantastic talent pools of Singaporeans and PRs, and companies that are setting up here need to tap into this pool. This does not mean that non-Singaporeans can’t get jobs in Singapore.
The problem we see is that this is a hugely competitive candidate space; job numbers are growing and the talent pool isn’t growing as exponentially, so there are some gaps created. Therefore, quite often, a lot of companies might set up here with somebody from their organisation who has come from Australia, the UK or US. This is more around the fact that this person understands the DNA of that business and can ultimately set it up successfully, after which it hires local talent.
I don’t believe that the Fair Consideration Framework has a huge impact on whether companies set up here. I think the challenge is in getting the right talent—but that’s the same in other countries. We have been through the same cycles in other parts of the world. Ultimately, everyone in Singapore has seen its successful economic growth. There has been a lot of hiring of both local and international talent, which has contributed to this success. When countries reach this point of success, it becomes necessary to draw clearer guidelines around employment. We see that in the UK, Australia, the US, etc. Singapore is no different, and the latest mandate in terms of hiring—everybody is in support of that.
What does the market place look like for jobseekers in 2015?
The Singapore market is extremely candidate-driven. What I mean by that is that it’s a healthy job market. We recently produced a report called the Asia Job Index, which gives us a very good overview of the job market in Singapore. Based on this, we know that our big focus at the moment is supply: finding the talent, attracting them and retaining them as well. This is good news for all the local talent here.
Share some of the findings from this report.
What we are seeing here, with the Fair Consideration Framework gathering pace, is that the demand for local talent rose across industries. However, it remained a candidate-driven market, which left positions vacant for extended periods and longer-running job advertisements.
Singapore continues to be an economically viable choice for multinationals and SMEs to establish their Southeast Asian hub despite increasing operating costs and competition from other countries in the region. Hence, we are likely to see more new-to-market jobs and opportunities driving wage inflation. In particular, oil & gas and manufacturing companies remained strong employers as many are attracted to Singapore for its strong infrastructure.
Overall, Q2 2014 compared to last year saw a 28% increase in jobs, which is quite significant. Q2 is also the biggest quarter of the year for recruitment, the reason being that it’s the post bonus period, and we see a lot of movement post bonuses by candidates who perhaps are looking to leave for better opportunities. That creates a whole circle of job leavers and jobseekers finding jobs around this period of time.
Some of the biggest changes we have seen are in
  • Medical services which saw a 37% increase. If you look at the pharmaceutical market and what’s happening in the local space, it makes sense
  • There is an 80% increase in HR spaces as well. Again I am not surprised about that since there is a lot focus on two key areas on retention and talent acquisition, as well as remuneration. There is a lot more focus now on what executives are getting paid and how that is being controlled and measured.
  • IT remained a challenging sector to attract talent, particularly at the junior level, which drove job advertising up by 67% from 2013. Accounting and Finance saw a 91% increase. This basically incorporates other financial services such as banking, compliance and risk management professionals. A large portion of that is down to regulations from regulatory bodies such as MAS, for example, which has increased the job flow.
Another area has also seen growth quite a bit is the contracting market, which traditionally in Singapore was not popular because of the perception that you can’t get a permanent job if you are on contract. But Singapore has evolved, and contract jobs are starting to get better response. It has also opened up an additional pool of candidates, for example, working mothers who would prefer to get back to work but aren’t able to work full time due to family commitments, or you’ve got companies that might be offshoring, which is happening a lot at the moment, and don’t have permanent head count and therefore they will hire professional contractors for six to 12 months.
You referred to IT. How has advancement in various profiling tools, technology and online channels impacted your business?
We are fortunate in the sense that we have been here since 1998, which is quite a long track record. Recruitment is a relatively young industry, but we have been able to build up a lot of good relationships and intellectual property here as well.
That said, technology for us is a good thing. It helps us communicate better and ultimately supports what we do.
Lets look at psychometric tests. In my experience, a larger proportion of companies we deal with don’t perform any psychometric tests; they base it on just face-to-face meetings and formulate a decision. In many cases, one also looks at social aspects of the interview, which might not necessarily be addressed in such tests. My preference is that these be done in the beginning of a hiring process than in the middle or the end because sometimes people don’t get through those tests, but people actually pass a face-to-face with flying colours.
Online channels such as LinkedIn help a lot of in-house talent acquisition teams, but there might be some niche skill sets that are not necessarily available via these channels. In our role as recruiters, we spend a lot of time talking to people who are passively looking. They might be interested, but they are not really actively pursuing a role. Our job is to present the right type of role to them and to encourage them to take that on.
Diversity is getting significant attention these days. Do you see many companies embracing this?
That’s a topic that people are talking all the time and have done so for many years. I think it is our responsibility to offer a fair chance to everyone. I cannot comment on every company’s diversity policy, but I would say that our role as a support partner to our clients is to make sure the best candidates are chosen from a diverse range of people. But it ultimately comes down to hiring the best person for the role.
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt from the HR business?
Personally, I think you learn from people throughout your career, based on a good or bad experience, in terms of expectations and the framework you want to operate within. I think ‘listening’ is a key part of any leadership role; so is being open to thoughts and comments to ultimately make decisions. I am far from perfect, but when I make one, I think back on how I could have done that differently and not repeat the same.