Closing the talent gap in Singapore’s healthcare and life sciences sector

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a candidate I placed in a pharmaceutical firm sometime back. During our chat, the engineering manager revealed that his pay had jumped by 50 per cent in four years, due to a series of merit increments and promotions.

While the increments he received were among the most generous I’ve seen so far, his story has supported a trend my team has observed:  Most employers are prepared to groom top local talent and provide high-level career progression opportunities to plug the mid to senior-level talent gap in Singapore’s healthcare and life sciences sector.

From 2000 to 2011, Singapore’s medical technology sector tripled its manufacturing output from S$1.5 billion to over S$4 billion. Over the same period, jobs created in the sector more than doubled from 4,000 to 9,000.

However, companies are not finding the talent they need fast enough. As Singapore maintains its position as Asia’s fastest growing bio-medical hub, the lack of specialised skill sets will likely pose a major challenge on further development.

Already, to cope with a tighter foreign labour policy, many organisations in Singapore have started to invest more in the local workforce.

Academic initiatives such as science scholarships by A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) have provided opportunities for undergraduates to pursue careers in the health and life sciences by offering financial support, research attachment and overseas exchange opportunities.

Mid-career professionals keen to join the healthcare sector are also given the option to enroll in the Healthcare Professional Conversion Programme (PCP), which offers both degree and diploma courses. The PCP is jointly offered by the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA).

One thing to note: such professionals entering the market for the first time may have to manage their salary expectations. Instead of receiving the high salaries reported for the sector, they may have to start off at lower pay levels due to the lack of experience.

Companies with a shortage of existing talent can also consider attracting non-pharmaceutical professionals with transferable skills from related industries, such as electronics and engineering. Adopting flexible talent acquisition processes and hiring from outside the industry can help meet the talent gap in the sector’s five most sought-after skills: quality assurance, engineering, product and brand management, medical affairs, and compliance.

Retaining talent

In this candidate-driven market, talent attraction is not enough — employers will have to think retention as well.

According to the 2016 Michael Page South East Asia Salary and Employment Outlook, company culture, work-life balance options and training opportunities were strong factors in attracting talent. And we are seeing more companies actively considering these factors while crafting their retention strategies. For example, more organisations are raising training budgets, sending talent for external courses in order to develop and retain them.

As the Singapore population ages, and as the rest of the region becomes more affluent — and able to afford better medical care — the healthcare and life sciences sector look set for a continued boom. Investing and developing the local workforce to meet that opportunity is a smart long-term bet that can give the industry the momentum it needs to move forward.