Leadership & talent

Is talent in Singapore digital-ready?

03 April 2017 by Radhika Dhawan Puri

As Singapore readies itself for a Smart Nation drive, how are companies gearing up to meet the demand for a workforce with new skills like digital marketing and data analytics?  

As Singapore pushes ahead to become a Smart Nation, multinationals are responding to the city-state’s investment potential. There has been a burgeoning of companies whose business models revolve around the use of data. Google, for instance, set up its first data centre in Singapore in 2013 and plans to have a second one up and running by 2017, taking Google’s total investment in the country to US$500 million.

Dentsu-Aegis launched its first-ever Global Data Innovation Centre (GDIC) in Singapore last year, which serves as a hub for data scientists and technology talent for Dentsu globally.

Grab, Southeast Asia's largest ride-hailing service, has also opened a US$100 million research and development (R&D) centre in Singapore to focus on data analysis. The Singapore centre will be one of its three global research centres.  

Helping usher in this revolution is the Infocomm Media 2025 Masterplan, a government blueprint to create a globally competitive technology and media ecosystem. One of the thrusts of the programme is to create a digitally capable pool of talent.

Hiring and training digitally capable talent – people who can track, manage and analyse data – will be a major strategic focus area for businesses in Singapore.

Wai Leong Chan, partner at executive search firm Eric Salmon & Partners, said: “Singapore’s strength includes a growing pool of people who have experience with more than one start-up, and that group includes people from all over the world.”

Plenty of opportunities in the digital space

Digital transformation requires digitally skilled people. Audrey Kuah, managing director at Dentsu’s GDIC, said: “Any company that wants to develop a strategy for the digital economy needs talent in the digitisation space, ranging from marketing (the most obvious) to supply chain, manufacturing and even in traditionally heavy-labour divisions such as finance and legal.”

Christopher Shearmon, executive search consultant from nbi Consulting explained that recent examples of digital transformation fit into two boxes: Where a company takes the current business model online or in an application, or when the whole business model is reimagined based on technology.

“Digital is no longer a ‘channel’, but the opportunity to deliver more value to customers and, in turn, create more profitable and successful companies,” Shearmon explained. “This means that talent is typically more T-shaped, as teams and departments must understand each other in-depth to collaborate more effectively.”

As companies and the economy transforms, the opportunity for home grown talent is immense. It is estimated that Singapore will need an additional 30,000 information technology professionals by 2017.

Smart Nation will continue to create demand for ICT professionals with a range of deep technical skills. GovTech, Singapore’s newly launched government agency orchestrating the digital transformation of the public sector, in support of Singapore’s Smart Nation drive, is focused on growing deep technical capabilities within the government, ranging from software development, data science, geospatial technology to sensors and the Internet of Things.   

Jacqueline Poh, Chief Executive of GovTech, explained, “Building a Smart Nation requires all hands on deck. There are many citizen-centric challenges that are best tackled through the use of technology and data; but we need a core group of software engineers, designers and product developers who can deliver data-driven insights for the public good and develop tech solutions for citizens.”

“To the credit of our education system, our best and brightest engineers find themselves in demand by leading technology companies all over the world,” said Poh. “The government must continually engage with and learn from these technology experts globally to actively create technology applications that have the potential to change lives in Singapore.”

The Singapore government builds a digital-ready workforce

Launched in March 2016, GovTech’s Smart Nation Fellowship Programme seeks to attract top data scientists, technologists and engineers from academia and industries in Singapore and overseas to join the government for short stints of three to six months.

Successful applicants work alongside software engineers, data scientists and product developers from GovTech’s Government Digital Services team as well as users and developers from different government agencies. They will have the ability to apply data science or technology in meaningful ways to tackle real-world problems and improve people’s lives.

Much like what a combined team did to solve the issue of constant unexplained disruptions to the Circle Line trains in the second half of last year.  Data scientists and engineers from GovTech, DSTA, LTA and SMRT came together to investigate the disruptions. They studied and analysed data on train movements and incidents to successfully solve the problem and restore the efficiency of the Circle Line trains.

The Singapore government also has some of the strongest policy measures in place to develop ICT skills, such as setting aside SG$120 million (US$85 billion) to train Singaporeans over the next three years in technology skills.

TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA), a training platform run by the IMDA, offers two areas of training.  TeSA Core focuses on core or foundational ICT skills such as cybersecurity and data analytics, while TeSA Sector programmes build more specific skills relevant to the financial and healthcare industry.

Taking the initiative a step further, the government plans to build strong partnerships with industries to provide employment opportunities after training. Companies like Singtel, MediaCorp, ST Electronics and Integrated Health Information Systems will anchor major TeSA Sector programmes to institutionalise hiring practices and allow businesses to create encouraging career mobility tracks for these employees.

Private companies step up efforts to foster innovation

Many private businesses in Singapore see the value in encouraging capability building through training and grants. For instance, Dentsu’s GDIC offers training grants to employees, but also aims to encourage out-of-the-box thinking with digital marketing models.

Dentsu has established a GDIC-wide online sharing platform. This platform is regularly fed with ideas to encourage product managers, data scientists, analysts and engineers to think differently.

For example, training includes materials from art and music for data scientists to encourage coding around such topics.

The industry is also actively partnering with the government to foster digital talent in Singapore.  A case in point is Google, which is partnering with IMDA to train people in data architecture through the Squared Data Programme (SDP). 

The programme, in collaboration with Sparkline – a Singapore-based data analytics company, trains graduates in data analytics, information management, business intelligence and consumer and marketing insights.

The SDP functions on a small scale – just 20 graduates at a time – so Sparkline will be extending the training opportunity by setting up a full-fledged Sparkline Analytics Academy.

Singapore as a preferred destination for tech investments

According to Google, “Singapore offers an ideal combination of reliable infrastructure, a skilled workforce and a commitment to transparent and business friendly regulations. Singapore also has a vibrant internet economy and is located in the centre of one of the fastest-growing internet markets in the world”.

Said Kuah, “Singapore’s focus in the past three years on building the start-up ecosystem means that there is quite a bit of talent in the more advanced aspects of digitisation.”

Executive search firms such as nbi Consulting acknowledge that the pillars for creating a digitally-relevant economy exist, although more is yet to be done.

“Singapore is uniquely positioned to help with new digital models. The government’s support of innovation hubs has been critical as has fostering a better start-up community around technologies like block-chain, but these innovations must have clear applications, challenge current thinking and be tested in live situations,” said Shearmon.

Slowly yet steadily, the policy roadmap for Smart Nation is falling into place. The potential to touch and enhance lives is mind-boggling across medicine, education, infrastructure and citizen services. The journey has only just begun, and the road will be peopled with digital-ready talent. 

Edited by Sophie Chen and Goh Wei Ting