Rethinking talent – Adapting skills strategies for APAC

Asia Pacific’s gradual shift from low-cost manufacturing hub to innovation and consumption powerhouse is seeing more skilled people moving in every direction.

talent management in Asia
Ruth Holmes investigates the impact on companies’ approach to skills attraction, retention and leadership development in the region.As China sets about delivering on its strategy to move up the value chain and reboot its slowing economy, it will do so in an increasingly international market for key skills. Likewise, as other important emerging economies in the region, like India, Indonesia and Vietnam, continue to grow at a rapid pace, they are drawing in globally mobile workers from the region and beyond.Multinational companies, too, are now facing greater competition from companies in Asia Pacific, with skilled people with niche skills and international experience in high demand from local companies developing innovative products and services.The latest Asia Salary Guide from Hays, which canvassed 2,361 employers representing, between them, more than four million employees, bears witness to the scale of the skills challenge in the Asia region as a whole. With senior-candidate shortages in sales, marketing research and development, engineering, accountancy and finance, operations, technical and HR roles, 65 per cent of employers said they would consider employing or sponsoring a qualified or expatriate candidate.The continued demand for highly skilled foreign-national workers is evident in mobility studies. China, in particular, seems to favour this population for long-term assignments, especially in its more challenging interior destinations.This trend is counterbalanced by the trend within foreign companies facing cost and compliance pressures to localise roles, as well as to develop leaders ready and able to work in a multinational company.Along with disruptive trends like automation, the talent and skills agenda is therefore likely to remain the number-one challenge in the region for both international and local employers.

China in the market for skills

Today’s high-touch, knowledge economy demands scarce, often niche, skills and experience, and quickly. Recognising this, and as Re:locate reported in April, the Chinese government announced it was establishing a database of foreign nationals in response to “market changes” for labour.Part of a digital platform to match foreign experts with potential employers, the plans, announced at the Shenzhen Conference on International Exchange of Professionals, will see market forces taking the lead in matching talent to jobs.“Both the supply and demand sides are positive,” explained Zhang Jianguo, director of the State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs, “but I also notice that many employers can't find the right candidates. The key issue here is matching.“In the past, overseas talent introduction was led by government policies and talent projects, but these cannot react to market changes dynamically. The market should lead overseas talent recruitment, and the government should create a friendly environment for overseas talent, such as a simplified visa application process.”For now, the strategy’s impact on salaries and benefits is unclear. Yet the Chinese government’s plans are a statement of intent for companies competing for key skills in high-level projects critical to China’s plans, including in satellites, semi-conductor technology and deep-sea exploration.Tech start-ups, riskier in career terms but potentially more lucrative, are also making their presence felt in the region’s buoyant market for talent, and are an attractive career route for Chinese Millennials and the next generation of leaders.

Revising the rules of attraction

Describing this nexus of talent and China’s restructuring at the Worldwide Employee Relocation Council’s (WERC) Shanghai conference in March, Shaun Rein, bestselling author and managing director of the China Market Research Group, explained what it meant for Western companies looking to attract the next generation of leaders.“For HR, foreign companies have to localise compensation and training packages to Chinese because, right now, Chinese people don’t just want to work for a Western company. Now, everybody wants to work for a Chinese company, and they are going to work for start-ups. Western ways have lost their appeal to Chinese, and there is a big talent issue. HR really has to think about this.”

Agility and adaptability in action

This process begins by acknowledging some of the key differences and responding to them. For example, Asia Pacific, and China as part of it, has comparatively high levels of labour-market attrition, with workers moving jobs every two to three years on average.The debate continues about whether this churn is a positive trend. For some, high turnover can be a force that lends itself to creative destruction amid shortening business cycles and rapid technological change. Others favour a more structured, built-to-last mindset that develops knowledge and fills skills gaps. Manpower Group’s 2015 Talent Shortage Survey of 41,700 hiring managers in 42 countries found a lack of experience to be the fifth most common reason for talent gaps.Either way, acknowledging churn and the reasons for it reinforces the need for adaptability to local conditions in talent and leadership development strategies.

Rethinking retention

Christie Caldwell, APAC director of consulting at Aperian Global and a specialist in the design and delivery of global talent development solutions, also spoke at the WERC Shanghai conference. She agreed with the view that HR had to pay attention to countries’ specific needs.“I think we need to think about retention very differently for these markets. We often see, here in China, companies putting in global retention strategies raised out of Europe, where people are used to staying much longer in their jobs. In an extremely fast market, we need to do things differently.”Using the example of India, where the fast-moving technology sector is seeing fierce competition for, and movement of, talent, Ms Caldwell further noted that companies were creating entrepreneurial opportunities for change for this new generation, in particular  “to scratch that itch people are having when they see people making millions of dollars from creating an app and getting rich quick. It’s a very creative thing. If you’re not able to meet those needs in terms of variety and agility, then you will have a retention problem.”

Mobility’s role

For Christie Caldwell, one solution is creating opportunities for local high-potential talent to gain international experience. This supports the all-important idea of an identifiable career route to leadership roles for local talent in global companies.“The top of many organisations in China is still ‘pale and male’,” she noted. “There already is a huge retention issue, and this is only going to get bigger. How are you going to address that if you want to service markets successfully and draw in people?“We hear from business leaders two barriers when it comes to developing Asian talent: global business acumen and a sense of how other parts of the business work.“Global mobility has become much more critical in giving people perspective on the business through short-term rotations and visibility, job exchanges and really getting that sense of a global business and understanding the priorities, especially in a global matrix. So if you’re thinking about accessing Asian talent, think about really structuring it so that there is a network and you get a broad sense of a global business. I think those should the top two priorities.”With business and career success today being about having the ability to read the data and the knowledge and network to make the connections, locally tailored talent management and mobility are vital aspects of moving ahead in challenging times.

APAC global mobility magazine
Read more about China and the Asia-Pacific region in our APAC Summer 2016 digital magazine.

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