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Companies need new strategies in contest for top talent

Published on Friday, 19 Apr 2013
Lesley Brown

Life for a chief executive is never easy. If times are tough, they have all the stress that goes with falling sales, shrinking margins and rationalising resources. If, as now, things are generally on the up, they must contend with the very different set of challenges that comes with implementing plans for expansion against intense local and international competition.

Prominent among those is the challenge of attracting and retaining the critical talent without which no organisation can expect to prosper over the long term. In Asia-Pacific, senior managers now identify this as their number-one concern, outranking other issues such as innovation and economic risk. Dealing with it effectively has moved right up the agenda, meaning that it is no longer just an "HR matter", but something that consistently exercises the minds of board-level executives and their advisers.

"In countries like China and India, millions of newly qualified people enter the workforce every year, so you would think that hiring should be easy," says Lesley Brown, regional practice leader of employee surveys and insights at consultancy firm Towers Watson. "But companies in every sector continue to have difficulty finding the right people and keeping the talent they need."

This conclusion is based on the findings of a study of global talent management and rewards. It sought information and opinions from nearly 800 decision-makers in organisations around Asia. Results were compared with feedback from a parallel global-workforce survey of some 9,000 full-time staff in 13 Asia-Pacific markets.

Overall, 31 per cent of companies reported either "difficulty" or "great difficulty" in recruiting, clearly pointing to a growing mismatch between skills and numbers available and what today's go-ahead employers actually require.

"Hiring recent graduates is not too hard, but critical-skill, high-potential and top-performers with some relevant experience are difficult to find and even more difficult to hire," Brown says. "In fact, the surveys suggest that nearly three-quarters of companies around the world face challenges in this area."

While emphasising that there is no "one size fits all" solution, Towers Watson has recommendations which forward-looking organisations should consider.

Firstly, there is the option of exploring non-traditional talent pools. If shortages in managerial and technical fields are expected to persist in mature markets, it makes sense to turn more towards outsourcing, offshoring and retraining. Allied to that, decisions about where best to locate not just production and back-office work, but also centres of innovation, design and advanced engineering, should be revisited to put jobs where people are, not vice versa.

Next, firms must be more proactive in establishing partnerships with educational institutions and government agencies to train and develop more people with the requisite skills for a fast-changing work environment.

"China-based computer maker Lenovo is a good example," Brown says. "It is partnering with top-ranked mainland universities to identify people who may have gone abroad to study and are interested in returning to work. The company is building a talent pipeline for three to four years down the road."

Employers may also need to rethink and reconstruct certain jobs to make them doable from home or remote locations. This will make it increasingly important for anyone handling HR processes to adopt a fresh mindset, enabling them to incorporate radically different views and make things happen.

"Companies need much sharper HR strategies to position themselves as employers of choice," Brown says. "Talent segmentation can help them obtain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of their employees' skills and more accurately determine where the gaps are. It also lets them measure individual employee contributions, as well as variations in performance."

In many cases, the need to improve retention is just as vital. For that, companies should make it a priority to establish a clear employee value proposition and create a sustainable employment deal. 

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