Recruitment advice: expat or local?

Four key recruitment players give their viewpoint on whether to hire local or expat talent

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June 14, 2015
Recruitment advice: expat or local?

Four key recruitment players give their viewpoint on whether to hire local or expat talent

It is boom time for jobseekers in Asia-Pacific where, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, hiring levels are twice as high as in the West. Unfortunately, factors such as a large-scale skills mismatch and shifting demographics mean it is becoming increasingly difficult for employers to hire the right talent. Traditionally expatriate employees have often filled this void, but many regional nations have brought in protectionist measures in recent years to try to ensure that jobs are filled by local employees. At this year’s Festival of Media in Singapore, Southeast Asia Globe discussed the question of local versus expat talent with four of the region’s prominent employers.

Illustration by Oliver Raw

With ever increasing numbers of jobs coming online, where does the region find talent?

George Patten: It comes from the region itself. I refute that it has to come from expats, even being an expat myself. I strongly believe that the media industry, and industry in broader terms, will nurture and grow with people from within local markets.

Bala Subramaniam: A great way to engage local talent is to bring in an employee reference scheme, because if you hire great people I’m sure they know other great people that they’ve worked with before or are friends with. Statistically that’s been the highest single source of talent for us [at Twitter Indonesia] – close to half the hires we make are from employee reference, and it’s a phenomenal source to tap.

What are the key considerations when deciding whether to hire expat or local?

Janice Foo: When we transfer someone from another part of the world, I think we need two things to happen: first we need to ask ourselves why do we need to bring in a particular talent – what is the key expertise that this person can deliver and what is expected of them? And the other thing is that we need to consider how the local staff perceive it. We really need to address that, particularly if it is creating a perception that there is a glass ceiling for them.

Seok Hian Tang: There’s one thing that really puzzles me and it’s that in the marketing world we have started to categorise consumers based on their psychographics rather than their demographics. However, when it comes to talent, I think we’re still very stuck at local vs. expat, or their nationality, their race, their religion. I think we need to move onto the psychographics of the talent, what they’re like in terms of their personality – are they a problem solver, an influencer? Let’s start to look at the skill sets, the attributes, the behaviours, rather than the other areas.

BS: However, some markets are far more advanced than a country like Indonesia, for instance, where we’ve just opened an office. There is a certain amount of knowledge we can get from markets that are further ahead of the curve and apply that to emerging markets such as Indonesia. So talent here needs local understanding and local expertise, which definitely comes from the local workforce, along with learning we can bring from other markets. It’s a transition process.

Many regional companies are attempting to hire more local talent at all levels, including management level, a traditional expat stronghold. What are some of the considerations when replacing management-level expat staff with local staff?

JF: One of the dangers that we find quite common is that local staff can pick up the technical knowhow and operational knowhow easier than they can pick up the soft skills. I mean attributes such as leadership, chain management and staff motivation… Another danger we find is that once we’ve groomed a local staff member, so that they have the right technical and operational knowhow, there’s a very high risk of them being poached by our competitors… There is really a shortage of people at the management level who are a bit more well-rounded, so they become a target for our competitors.

How do you think the question of local and expat employees will evolve in the coming years?

JF: I think that the trend will be – at the very senior level – things getting a lot more selective in terms of the people that we bring in. So it [expat staff] will go lower in terms of numbers… because [employers] won’t fly in people from the US and the UK because more and more the region is able to produce people for the senior levels. For middle and junior levels, I think it’s becoming a bit more international. We’ll get people from different markets – people from the Philippines going to China, from Vietnam going to Singapore. I think there will be a lot more international mobility within the Asian market.

SHT: Right now at Starcom from a Southeast Asia perspective the trend is that we’re starting to attract more people who have Southeast Asian nationalities but who have studied and worked overseas. So actually it is diversifying from a mindset perspective, rather than from a physical or nationality perspective. There’s an increasing trend [of people coming back] also partly because places such as London and New York are clamping down on foreign workers. They allow people to study there but it’s not so easy to work there – they are almost forced to come back. So in a way we leverage on that.

How does hiring expat staff affect local talent?

JF: I think that how the local staff perceive the expat is very important. Communication is key – we need to be clear why we brought this person in and what the key deliverables are. This plan has to be made known to the local staff. I think that if it is managed well, it will motivate the staff to want to learn from these people. It is very important to manage perceptions, so that the local staff see that there is a path for them.

SHT: I think we must be clear why we need a foreign hire. I think that if you go back to the original intention behind bringing in expats, it’s really to impart thought processes, knowledge and expertise into the local market where it has yet to build that kind of capability. That’s why you pay a premium, and why you have to do things like fly them in. At Starcom we’re very particular about investing in foreign hires. We know that they are unlikely to be there for good so we’re always looking to build for succession and building teams locally for the next three to five years’ time.

Given those issues, as well as other variables such as higher wages in other parts of the world, how can companies persuade young Asian talent to stay in the region?

GP: I think it’s critical to make people realise that you’re putting them first. It’s about nurturing talent at all levels, making them feel valued, giving them proper training, giving them opportunities. In every industry, people are the most important thing… We try to ensure a meritocracy. You have to think about who you must retain at all costs, who is the most important person for your [business], and try to look after the top 20% because it’s about your best performers and making sure that you really look after the people who are driving you forward.

BS: In my experience, I find that we’re most likely to lose people on the cusp – somebody who has been at the company for three years, who is on the cusp of a promotion, will find the external market ready to pay for that ahead of time compared to internally. That’s where a lifetime career plan is vital for retaining that top local talent. Make it clear it’s not just this promotion cycle, it’s not just this January’s pay cheque, but what we can offer you over a lifetime. Communicate that to employees. Tell them there’s a plan. 

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