The battle for Asia's tech talent

Employers across the region are competing to hire the best IT professionals, but their search is set to get tougher as supply is failing to meet growing demand, say market watchers.

Skills in business application and software development, amongst other fields, are expected to be in high demand across the Asia-Pacific region's more developed markets. However, it could take as long as three years in some countries to train enough talent to meet today's demands, according to industry watchers.

As the region sees increased development work, and with more functions being undertaken in-house by companies, there will be further boost in demand for .Net and J2EE developers, networking engineers and professionals with SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementation skills, DP Search director Andrew Sansom said in an e-mail interview.

Kelly Chua, consultant for IT and telecommunications (IT&T), Hudson Singapore, said the country's hot IT jobs continue to be in the field of business applications.

"The high demand for SAP expertise and business-specific applications is mainly due to the constant need for organizations to align their businesses to market changes. This, in turn, affects the related IT applications," Chua explained.

According to Roger Olofsson, associate director at RobertWalters recruitment services' IT division, regional growth has further spurred more organizations to upgrade older ERP systems.

"Most firms were holding back in the difficult years [of] 2003 and 2004," Olofsson said in a phone interview. "When the economy recovered, they found they needed to expand [their IT capabilities] to compete [since] IT raises their competitive advantage."

"In Singapore, demand for IT expertise is growing as greatly as it did in the 1990s. Lots of companies are moving from the United States, Tokyo, Europe and other higher-cost areas," he said.

Big demand in big money
The region's financial sector continues to be a big employer of tech professionals.

In Hong Kong, for example, IT roles that specialize in investment banking such as frontoffice support, risk management, business analysis, development and project management, are high in demand, said Ellis Seder, manager for IT&T, Hudson Hong Kong.

"Increased volatility in the banking world will lead banks to review market- and credit-risk processes and systems," said Seder. "As such, they will invest heavily this year to update risk systems.

In Japan, sales and pre-sales roles are also highly sought after by both local small and medium businesses (SMBs) as well as multinational corporations.

"We forecast that in 2008, we will see steady demand for candidates strong in pre-sales, sales and project development," Mike Armstrong, head of IT&T for Hudson Tokyo said in a phone interview.

"There is still a war for talent," he added, noting that for candidates, "being bilingual in English and Japanese would help" secure their ideal jobs.

As for China, jobs in OS (operating system) kernel development with low-level system programming such as C coding, look set to be high in demand this year, said Raymond Wong, general manager for Tony Keith, a subsidiary of Hudson China. "An increasing number of kernel and system-level projects are being moved to China from the R&D (research and development) headquarters of major multinational companies," said Wong.

"In the early days of software development in China, most development projects coming from overseas were limited to application-level or quality assurance and localization projects. The kernel technical aspects were controlled and finished in the home countries," he explained. "Now, due to the maturity of the Chinese IT environment and current availability of IT talent in China, more OS kernel development projects are being transferred to China."

Competing for talent
However, Chua noted that the supply of IT expertise in the region is unable to meet the current demand. "It is always a challenge to find individuals with specific application background," she said.

Singapore, for example, is not producing enough IT professionals, Olofsson said. "Our clients in Singapore are recruiting more from overseas."

Chua added that Hudson is seeing demand for candidates in the financial services sector, with companies competing with Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo for the limited talent pool.

Wong said the job market in mainland China, too, lacks enough suitable technology candidates to satisfy employer needs.

"We forecast that it will take two to three years to train enough talent to meet the demands we face today," he said. "China is largely short of suitable talent for more senior positions, especially candidates with strong English skills and related experience in their fields."

Because of a lack of available talent in China, some organizations have had to recruit people with technical skills that are related, but not specific, to their roles.

Companies have also taken to hiring candidates who have potential and training them on the job, Wong said. "This creates more openings for tech talent who would not ordinarily find jobs," he noted.

In addition, China companies have often resorted to recruiting candidates overseas for senior positions.

"This can present a good opportunity for local engineers to gain knowledge and experience from their foreign counterparts," Wong said. "It is also a challenge as they are forced to integrate and work closely with foreign supervisors and colleagues."

"[At the end of the day], more [work] experience is what's required to bring our domestic talent up to speed, and this is something that will only improve with time," he added.

And while DP Search's Sansom noted that the current demand-supply situation is "balanced right now", he added that high-quality hires are not available on the market for long "so employers have to be quick to catch the good ones".