Asia desperately seeking IT talent

Job prospects are looking good this quarter, but recruiters say finding the right people is like searching for needle in a haystack.

Hiring expectations have fallen this quarter but job prospects remain rosy, so much as that recruiters are finding it difficult to fill IT positions, according to latest findings from human resources agency Hudson.

In its fourth-quarter study of Asia's recruitment trends, Hudson noted that permanent employment expectations have fallen from five-year highs in China, Hong Kong and Singapore. The survey polled 2,300 decision makers from multinational organizations of all sizes in major industry sectors in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.

Hiring expectations have fallen in China from 62 percent in the third quarter to 56 percent this quarter, with similar growth sentiments in Hong Kong where 53 percent plan to hire between October and December, compared to 62 percent in the third quarter. In Singapore, expectations have also fallen from 56 percent to 52 percent in the fourth quarter.

Japan is the only market where hiring expectations remained unchanged. Some 63 percent of respondents indicated plans to hire more staff, the same figure reported for the second and third quarters of 2006. Banks in Japan have the highest expectations, with 75 percent expecting to hire more staff.

Gary Lazzarotto, Hudson's CEO for Asia, said in a statement: "Employment expectations are falling in every market surveyed, expect Japan. However, [hiring expectations] are still [at] a high level, and staff recruitment and retention are seen as the most critical HR challenge across the region.

"Employers are increasing salaries and performance bonuses, and offering more training opportunities to attract the talent they need," he said.

Tech prospects
Recruiters looking to fill IT-specific positions as well as vacancies in the IT and telecommunications sectors, are having difficulty hiring and retaining staff, particularly in Hong Kong and Singapore, according to Hudson's report.

Demand for sales staff in Hong Kong is strong, particularly in IT and finance, while sales and IT professionals are sought after in Singapore where 22 percent and 19 percent, respectively, of new jobs are from these categories.

Hudson also reported that all of its Hong Kong respondents cited skills shortage as a leading obstacle they face in hiring for positions in the IT and telecommunications sectors.

The human resources agency attributed the continued strong demand for IT personnel to Singapore's rapid development as a regional IT and technology hub, particularly in the banking sector. Higher salary demands also have the greatest impact on hiring in the IT and telecommunications sectors, the report found.

Commenting on these market trends, Andrew Sansom, director of DP Search, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail: "The recruitment wave surged and peaked in third quarter, and is a little slower in the fourth quarter. [Recruitment drive] in the first quarter, and especially the second quarter, of 2007 will most likely be back up again.

"Invariably when demand is high, the pendulum swings back to become a seller's market and candidates will have multiple job offers and higher expectations, like [they do] now," Sansom added. DP Search is a recruitment agency specializing in the IT and finance industries in Southeast Asia.

Recruitment has been challenging in the wake of higher demand for sales positions and senior IT management roles. "Untypically, we have had a rush [hiring demand for] senior user organization roles such as CIO, CTO and IT director," said Sansom. "Senior IT roles in businesses are not always easy to fill because of the corporate cultural fit. We have also seen an insatiable demand for good sales people in a variety of disciplines, particularly with software companies and systems integrators."

According to the Hudson report, hiring top talent is one of the most critical challenges.

DP Search's Sansom said: "Our biggest challenge is finding good quality people prepared to make a move. Advertising is not the answer; people have to be hunted down and coaxed out of their positions. Of course, then they make demands like higher pay and they have higher expectations.

"We need to be careful we don't unwittingly fuel a wage spiral such as the one that took place in the late 1990s. That kind of thing almost always precedes a total slowdown, which is good for none of us. Candidates need to be reasonable in their demands, employers need to be realistic," he advised.

Cheong Yen Niap, sales director for Asia at Software AG, agreed that finding good hires has become an issue: "The ability to recruit and retain IT talents has been a challenge for our industry."

In the past few months, he noted that his company has found it "particularly difficult" to recruit suitable SOA (service-oriented architecture) architects.

Cheong said: "While most IT talents do posses basic pre-requisites like analytical ability, positive attitude, strong communication skills and the ability to appreciate cultural diversity across Asia, it is a challenge to find suitable candidates who have the skill sets that fit our requirements," he explained. These required skills sets include a good knowledge of SOA, methodologies, business processes, and a broad understanding of IT infrastructures, he said.

Equally important, Cheong added, are domain knowledge of key vertical markets such as banking and finance, manufacturing, retail and logistics, and strong consulting skills.

Hiring in the fourth quarter is also a challenge because that is when annual bonuses are paid out. "Most potential candidates, especially those in the Greater China region, prefer to wait for the payout of year-end bonuses and salary review before deciding on the next course of action, for example, to move or remain in the company," said Cheong.

It is also a tight labor market for logistics service providers which are increasingly dependent on IT.

James Loo, CIO of YCH Group, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail: "Recruiting is difficult for us not just because of the good economy, but experienced staff with both IT and/or logistics domain knowledge are really hard to find.

"We have a very small pool to begin with because only until very recently, the logistics sector in the region has been slow in its use of IT," he explained. "Unlike most logistics companies, YCH began investing in IT early--about 25 years ago. Today, we are focused on supply chain management technology, and having [employees with] a good logistics background is a prerequisite."

With the increased focus on IT in the logistics sector, Loo said "everyone is fighting for a very limited pool of good professionals".

Hiring is also difficult as the industry has moved to more advanced technologies such as RFID (radio frequency identification), and is therefore in need of qualified personnel.

Loo said: "In the past, the industry relied heavily on barcode technology for data capture, but it has now moved on to RFID… With demand greater than supply, the other problem is quality which also suffers. We simply can't get the same value for money as in the past."

But the biggest challenge for YCH, he noted, is that the "logistics industry will always be less attractive compared to telecommunications, banks and other financial sectors".

"And even if you look within the transportation sector, logistics will be less attractive when compared to the airlines," Loo said.