Singapore’s recruitment challenge

Insurance Insight
Published: 14 Oct 2013


Justin Harper finds out how the battle for talent is being played out in one of Asia’s key insurance hubs.
Insurers in Singapore are struggling to recruit the right talent given the new players entering the market and the  diversity of products on offer.

Finding people for key positions such as underwriters and actuaries is a particular problem in the industry and substantial salary increases are needed to lure away the best candidates.

There are also other roles insurers struggle to fill.

Christina Ng, associate director – financial services & legal, at recruitment firm Robert Walters Singapore, says: “We have difficulty looking for financial planners and advisers. Because the role relies on commission, we struggle to attract the right people. You need to be MAS (Monetary Authority of Singapore) qualified and have passed the right certificates.”

Other vacancies tricky to fill include strategic ones like sales distribution. “This is an area of demand and talented individuals are hard to get hold of, and expensive to hire from other companies,” added Ng.

Skills gap
Jin Ong, chief human resources officer at Axa Singapore, said that while actuarial and underwriting roles were a traditional source of difficulty, there was another key skills gap. He says: “Leadership is something that we are putting a greater emphasis on and finding the right person with the mix of technical skills and leadership competency is the hardest to find.”

“Leadership is something that we are putting a greater emphasis on.” Ong

Given these sorts of concerns, Robert Walters has set up its own specialised insurance team to handle the increasing number of clients looking for staff. The problem in finding the right people is that they need time to be trained and developed.

Christine Sim, director at PrimeStaff Management Services, says: “Where the jobs require specialised training like actuaries, underwriters and even claims processors, it would indeed be very challenging as they would have to undergo years of rigorous structured training to acquire the insurance technical skills and certification, to perform well as mandated under statutory provisions.”

With sales and distribution positions, suitable candidates usually need at least five years’ experience. This allows them to build up valuable relationships and networks that they can bring with them.

Sim adds: “Even finding direct retail agents is difficult as these jobs are purely commission-based and these agents have to undergo stringent training to obtain a licence to be a financial advisor before they can start to sell. There is a time lag and this impedes organisational sales performance as recruitment, training and actually onboarding the individual to the role is heavily regulated. There is also a high attrition rate and as such, the need to constantly backfill is there.”

Training up
Insurance broker JLT takes a different approach to recruiting.

“Our approach has always been to recruit people with relevant construction/engineering experience who are prepared to undergo a career switch. We then train them up from scratch,” said Choy Wing Kwong, regional director, construction at JLT Speciality.

He identifies one of the problems the industry faces is public image. Insurance is not as glamorous as banking and finance, so the brightest graduates tend to shun the sector.

Another issue is the growing number of new insurers entering the sector tapping into the local market, looking for people with an Asian background. For example, Standard Life launched in Singapore this year while XL Group has set-up a regional hub in the city.

Meanwhile, the Singapore government has been clamping down on foreign labour as it faces political pressure from locals. While this has had a greater impact on more manual sectors like construction, it has still affected the insurance sector.

Chris Mead, insurance and financial services manager for Hays in Singapore, says: “The industry is rapidly growing but there still needs to be more investment in grass roots talent which makes a job rich, candidate poor recruitment market at the lower levels. Often it’s harder to get foreign talent to fill junior positions as in many cases they won’t meet the MOM’s (Ministry of Manpower) threshold for an EP (Employment Pass).”

“The industry is rapidly growing but there still needs to be more investment in grass roots talent which makes a job rich, candidate poor recruitment market at the lower levels.” Mead

 As the large multi-nationals increase their presence in the Singapore market, they find themselves faced with a dilemma. They need to strike a balance between bringing in senior talent from overseas in order to maintain the core business values and at the same time invest in local talent who have a strong understanding of the markets that they are looking to grow.

 Village feel
Recruitment agencies say finding the people with the right experience can be incredibly difficult, particularly in comparison to other industries. One of the reasons for this is the diversity of products in the market and the limited size of the industry in Singapore.

Mead adds: “The industry was once described to me as a ‘tiny village’, a place where everyone knows everyone, and to a certain extent this is still the case today. So on the one hand this limits the talent pool available causing employers to consider overseas talent, but on the other hand those with a good reputation and who really understand the local market can be in high demand.”

The small network means that underwriters and brokers have well established, intricate networks so when it comes down to who is moving where, they are often the first to know.

Jin Ong at Axa adds: “Identifying experienced insurance staff is not too difficult because of this, as veterans within the industry are well known. If anything, hiring from outside of the industry is the challenge. There is value in market knowledge, but also value in bringing non-insurance experience into the industry to make it stronger.”

As Singapore’s insurance market expands, it is also growing vertically with reinsurance becoming more prominent.

 Chris Mead adds: “There are increasing and significant business opportunities for reinsurance companies operating in Singapore which has seen an on-going demand for experienced staff in that industry sector.  Technically strong reinsurance professionals are in high demand and limited supply.”

“Technically strong reinsurance professionals are in high demand and limited supply.” Mead

Not surprisingly, salaries, both fixed and variable, have climbed steadily as players consolidate and focus on productivity and performance. Talented individuals with good front-office experience have seen salaries rise significantly.

“There are a lot more insurance companies based in Singapore so the pool of talent is getting thinner. People know what they are worth and build in a risk premium. They will want 15% to 20% more when they move,” cooncludes Ng at Robert Walters.

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