Asia and the war to keep talent

May 6, 2016 Jim Stroud

opportunities to learn and clear career paths will help you retain your best talent

Traveling is like getting a new pair of glasses: Visiting new places and interacting with diverse cultures can be quite illuminating, to say the least. More often than not, I stumble across some new insight that changes my perception about the world of work. Recently, I was fortunate enough to represent my beloved employer, Randstad Sourceright, in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. I shared innovative sourcing strategies at the 2016 Sourcing Summit Asia and met with various clients. During my visit, certain realities were made more evident than ever before.

All too often, I hear about the "war for talent." It is a mantra often repeated and commonly alludes to the recruiting of talent. However, what is equally important but cited less often is the challenge of retaining the workforce you have. Consider this graph, which compares business news searches worldwide for "recruiting" and searches related to the topic of "employee retention."

As you can see, recruiting searches consistently outpace searches related to employee retention. This suggests to me that people focus more on replacing workers than on keeping them. When you consider the exorbitant cost of replacing employees, no doubt the classic blues song "It’s cheaper to keep her" is echoing throughout CFO offices everywhere. Even so, considering the habits of job-hopping millennials, it’s easy to see the challenges of retaining talent in Asia.

In fact, I would say that Asia is ground zero for every doomsday employee retention scenario. Let's consider the facts. For one, there is a declining fertility rate which will soon force companies to somehow increase throughput with a smaller workforce in order to stay competitive.

Second, some parts of the region have a rapidly aging workforce that will play havoc on their economy and hamper retention efforts. Imagine a city where most of its workforce is retiring; fewer workers may mean lower taxes collected, which would lead to a reduction in public services. This could have an impact on quality of life and the attractiveness of the area

Third, Asia has an even more serious issue with job hoppers, who may leave jobs they enjoy based on the perception that they may get a 15% to 20% pay increase (although in reality, it would most likely range from 5% to 10%). A tight labor market fuels some of this phenomenon, accompanied by a desire for rapid career progression. There is something called a 4-2-1 trend happening in China, and I would not be surprised that it makes its way throughout Asia. This phenomenon refers to one child having to take care of two parents and four grandparents (wow!)

Finally, a very sensitive subject in Asia is the presence of foreign workers. Due to government restrictions, it takes a special effort to bring in workers from other countries. I question how long the region can hold out before relaxing some of its local rules. I noticed how the majority of the populations in Singapore, Malaysia and other Asian countries want to see the retirement age raised. Partly driving this are older workers wanting to avoid added pressure on their children. Others want the age raised because they do not want to retire due to financial concerns. 

With so many retention challenges evident in APAC, how can Asian companies cope? I have a few suggestions that are beyond the scope of salary increases.

I believe career development is an imperative for fostering company loyalty. Anecdotal evidence tells me that APAC workers are especially passionate about improving their skills so that they may grow professionally. Case in point is Randstad Sourceright’s sourcing center in Kuala Lumpur, where we tend to the recruiting needs of our clients worldwide. During my visit there, I spoke with our team about innovative sourcing techniques for about two hours, but judging by their appetite to learn, a week would not have been enough time. Even up to the time of this writing, I am still entertaining questions related to sourcing. 

In chatting with my colleagues, I discovered that the opportunity to learn was a key differentiator in why they chose to work at Randstad Sourceright versus a competitor. Moreover, in speaking with their managers, I learned how those who wished to progress beyond their current role were presented with learning opportunities. 

With respect to this, I would suggest that companies establish clear career progression paths for their people. Someone who joins the company as a junior level sales person should progress to a senior level sales person and eventually head of sales for the entire company over time. However, I believe that the company should be flexible enough to allow workers to transition into alternative paths. For instance, someone starting in sales could possibly develop an interest in programming. 

As I write this, recalling the sense of community among my colleagues in Kuala Lumpur brings a smile to my face. Their relationships extend beyond the working hours, which I believe helps our sourcing center maintain a clear retention advantage over competitors. People are more productive when they work alongside friends, so be very deliberate with team-building initiatives to draw your people together. Since returning from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, I enjoy reviewing photos of my new friends happily spending time with each other at the office. 

You know, maybe it’s time for a new nomenclature when referring to the recruiting challenges HR departments face. Maybe the "the war for talent" is really "the war to keep workers," and in that worldwide war, the battle has already begun, especially in Asia.

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