SINGAPORE - Most Singaporean students say they are keen to work overseas, yet many local firms struggle to find staff willing to be posted abroad.
The discrepancy has prompted eight companies to hire undergraduates they feel they can groom for international roles.
The firms, including Charles & Keith and Eu Yan Sang, have awarded scholarships to 12 candidates under IE Singapore's Young Talent Programme.
The programme was launched in March to help firms build up a pipeline of talent to help drive their internationalisation plans.
IE Singapore will reimburse 70 per cent of the scholarship costs and recipients will be expected to work with the company for a year for each year of funding received.
Four other undergraduates received the IE Singapore scholarship and will join the trade promotion agency after graduation.
A recent IE Singapore study found that 90 per cent of students polled expressed an interest in taking up an overseas job, especially in developing markets, said Mr S. Iswaran, Second Minister for Trade and Industry, at the scholarship ceremony on Friday.
But at the same time, he noted, competition for talent in the region is intensifying.
"According to a recent survey by IE Singapore, Singapore companies regard the availability of quality manpower as a key success factor for their overseas investments. However, it is also one of the biggest challenges they face when expanding overseas," he said.
The willingness of young Singaporeans to venture abroad for work, however, puts Singapore in good stead to develop a reservoir of talent to underpin future growth, he added.
Advanced Holdings - with operations in 16 countries - has struggled to find recruits despite the overseas opportunities it offers as engineering is deemed uncool by young people today, said managing director Kar Wong. The environmental technology firm will take two of the scholarship holders.
It is also tough to find people with the right mix of intelligence and interpersonal skills to take on an overseas posting, Mr Wong added.
"To have business managers managing your operations overseas, you need people who understand your business as well as the local culture and local business dynamics, and that can be quite a hard combination of skill sets to have."
The long-term solution, he said, would be to recruit young talent and groom them to be international managers.
Even big names such as Keppel face problems in this area. Keppel Telecommunications & Transportation, which is taking one scholarship holder, sometimes had difficulty finding managers for international operations, said chief executive Pang Hee Hon.
"We would like to deploy people who have grown within the company and who understand our culture before we deploy them overseas," he said. "But sometimes because of our expansion plans, we don't have a ready source of manager-level talent and certain positions can't be filled from within, so we need to hire externally and we would be competing with multinationals for such talent."
Mr Pang added that while people tend to be keen about overseas postings when they are young, they lose that enthusiasm once they have settled down and started families. When these employees have reached a senior enough position to take on big managerial roles abroad, they are hesitant to do so.
This is where the Young Talent Programme scholarship could help too, he said.
"Younger people are so prepared to see the world and see different things, so that's why we are trying to attract people to do an early stint overseas, build up that kind of overseas experience, which will put them in good stead to take up managerial positions in future."
Several more companies have expressed interest in joining the Young Talent Programme, said IE Singapore assistant chief executive Terence Seow. IE hopes to expand the programme next year to take in both more companies and scholarship holders.
"We started this not knowing how well it would be received and we've been quite surprised by the level of interest from the students - more than 100 signed up," he said. "We hope to do better next year and are quite confident that we can."
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