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Business trends

Fintech boom leads to talent war in Southeast Asia

Labor shortage exposes need for skill improvements in key markets

Commuters make their way to work in Bangkok: Southeast Asia's burgeoning fintech industry means Thais with the right skills can make twice the average wage or more. (Source photo by EPA/Jiji) 

TOKYO -- Chonladet Khemarattana's business is growing, but his head count is struggling to keep pace. Like many fintech startups in Thailand, the digital securities brokerage he co-founded in 2017 has more than 20 open positions, ranging from software engineers to business and investment analysts.

"There's a shortage of developers, especially if you want to recruit English speakers," said Chonladet, who also leads the Thai Fintech Association. He estimated a computer science graduate from the country's top university could receive a starting salary of 50,000 to 60,000 baht ($1,480 to $1,780) per month.

That is already twice the average wage for professionals in the country, which was about 27,800 baht in 2021. But it could easily double again as traditional banks look to digitize and regional tech giants enter the Thai market, according to Chonladet.

"Talent is hard to retain because the big banks and foreign giants poach them," he said.

The region is seeing a mad rush to fill jobs that did not exist a decade ago, with emergent fintech hub Singapore reporting a vacancy rate of up to 7.7% in the financial services and tech sectors. Demand for skilled labor in fintech will only accelerate after the industry received $3.5 billion in capital this year, with 73% of companies surveyed by the Singapore Fintech Association expecting double-digit headcount growth over the next two years.

The most in-demand roles are so-called tech wizards, who develop software and apps, and "commercial evangelists" experienced in business development who can market fintech products in a crowded market.

With global tech giants, Southeast Asian unicorns and local startups all competing for talent, job switchers can command salary increases of 15% to 20% in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, according to data from recruitment agency Michael Page.

"Most fintech professionals typically have a tenure of less than five years, with the majority leaving after one to two years, while over a third change jobs after three to five years," said Nesan Govender, managing director for talent and organization at Accenture Southeast Asia.

The consultancy co-authored a recent report with the Singapore Fintech Association on the talent shortage, finding that employees join and leave companies for the same reason -- career growth and skills development.

"What is the tech stack they'll get exposed to? That is usually one of the first questions we get asked when presenting options to a candidate," said Paul Cooper, senior managing director for Malaysia, Vietnam and APAC at Michael Page.

Flexible work arrangements are also a top consideration for job seekers. The pandemic-fueled escalation of remote work has created opportunities for cross-border hiring, but it could also accelerate the flight of top talent from local companies.

"A lot of our talent has gone to Singapore, where the pay is three times more than in Malaysia," said Karen Puah, president of the Fintech Association of Malaysia.

Malaysia took a hit on the jobs front when Grab chose Singapore for its 3,000-person headquarters in 2019, but the company still maintains a head count of more than 1,000 in its home country.

Hiring trends in the five countries tracked by Michael Page indicate that the fintech pie is large enough for each location to get an employment boost. Software developers and business managers, for example, could be based in Singapore, while programming, data and administrative roles could be outsourced. Over half the Singapore-based companies surveyed by SFA and Accenture had a majority of their workforce outside the city-state.

"A hub doesn't necessarily mean most of your employment is in a certain location," said Reuben Lim, chief operating officer of the Singapore Fintech Association. Given its perennially tight supply of labor, Lim said Singapore could instead be the "control tower" for staff spread throughout the region.

The city-state has made headway in helping workers who lost employment during the pandemic develop skills for fintech jobs, but the SFA-Accenture report said companies are underinvesting in training their existing employees, with 69% spending less than $1,000 per year per worker, lower than the global average.

Cooper of Michael Page likewise stressed the need for ongoing training, saying that existing workers can be trained for new roles, such as user interface design and customer engagement, and that even specialized roles will require more than just recruiting the right candidates.

"You're unlikely to find the finished article in such a dynamic space," he said.

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