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Talent thirst tops Asia agenda

Asia's ability to maintain its robust economic growth levels despite the uncertainty brewing in the West may be a promising sign for some. But tucked behind the rosy earnings reports of the region's companies rests some key concerns about their ability to source and retain the leaders needed to keep pace with this growth.

A 2011 survey conducted by The Conference Board - a not-for-profit international organisation funded by corporations - found the issue of retention to be among the most critical challenges cited by its 174 Asia respondents.

Of the business leaders polled in the region, some even went so far as to cite it as their primary concern, one which has long been and will likely continue to be on their minds for some time, explains Rebecca Ray, The Conference Board's senior vice-president for human capital.

"Before the global crisis, people were very aware that talent was going to be a key issue in Asia," she says. "It was already difficult to fill positions, particularly in the accounting, finance and banking industries. That's only become worse as the available pool of talent has become more scarce."

On the supply side, another cause for concerns is that of international talent migration. "Countries like India and [others] in Asia Pacific have traditionally been large exporters of talent, Rays says. “Many companies from around the world have reached into the labour pools of these places to take the best and brightest."

Given the current state of many of the developed world's economies, such movements appear to have eased up for now. Ray says, noting that Asians are increasingly opting to stay in Asia - or in the case of overseas graduates, return to Asia. Many, she adds, are also choosing to work for Asian-headquartered companies over once-more-highly-regarded multinational companies (MNCs).

"There's a lot of pride that people have in working for a local company in their own country during this exciting time," Ray explains. "That's a difficult thing to combat for a multinational."

But all is not lost for MNCs. Ultimately, she says, all companies are capable of attracting top talent so long as they offer a compelling employment value proposition. At the same time, Ray also suggests cultivating talent internally and enhancing the effectiveness of existing leaders through development programmes, both of which were cited as key areas of focus by survey respondents.

Of the firms already on board with this approach, Jardine Matheson is a notable case. Led by group human resources (HR) head Ritchie Bent, the global conglomerate has for 13 years run a management training scheme, which, as he notes, continues to boast markedly high retention rates.

Dubbed the JETs scheme - for Jardine Executive Trainees - the programme involves a four-year training period, after which graduates are given the chance to run one of the group's business units within 11 years' time.

Despite the programme’s success, however, Bent – like the survey respondents - sees an even greater need for focus on talent sourcing and development, in particular the pace of development. "For any company that says talent isn't a top challenge, either their HR director has it wrong or the company is about to implode," he says.

To address the concern, Bent and his team have developed a second management training programme specifically tailored to address the rapid growth of their mainland operations.

Like the JETs initiative, the new China Management Trainee Scheme (CMTS) promises that participants will someday run one of its businesses. Unlike the JETs approach, however, CMTS says offers this same opportunity in just eight years, following a notably shorter training period of two years. "It's too early to say if it [CMTS] will be successful, but it's looking promising," says Bent.

For existing leaders, the company currently provides continuous training as well as site visits at other firms..