Singapore develops plans to tackle chemical industry recruitment

No paradise island

19 January 2010 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Despite Singapore's best efforts to tackle the chemical industry recruitment crisis, it is still proving a tough task to attract the right amount and quality of talent


 Rex Features/Chris Eyles

THE TASK of making sure Singapore has enough chemical engineers to support one of its key industries is as difficult in the island state as just about anywhere in the world. And there are also a few unique, local problems.

"As with elsewhere in the world, we have to contend with higher salaries in industries such as finance and information technology [IT]," says Lawrence Cheung, country manager of US-based Dow Chemical in Singapore and vice-chairman of the Singapore Chemical Industry Council [SCIC]. "Six out of 10 chemical engineering students who graduate in Singapore won't actually enter the chemical industry because of the attraction of these salaries.

"Of the remaining four, it's probably fair to say that two will be tempted overseas to other chemical industries by higher salaries."

Around 450 students graduate in chemicals engineering in Singapore each year, with a further 160 gaining degrees in environmental engineering.

The other problem for petrochemicals, in particular, is that chemical engineering graduates may well join the chemical industry - but this could include sectors such as biotechnology, which has a more glamorous image than old-fashioned petchems and plastics.

"Another issue is the wide range of new courses being offered by the universities and polytechnics - for example, biologics, which is a subset of the pharma industry," says A. Chockalingam, process integrator for Shell Eastern Petroleum and also chairman of the SCIC.

"This is reducing the potential number of chemical engineering graduates."

Singapore's Economic Development Board (EDB), as well as the SCIC, are well aware of the problems, however - and are doing their best to turn the tide in favor of the chemical industry.

In response to the economic crisis, the EDB provided S$4.9bn ($3.5bn) from government reserves to fund two temporary job-preservation schemes across all industries.

This included Job Credit - a 12% rebate for employers off the cost of contributing to the Central Provident Fund, a government retirement, health care and housing savings program.

A "Preparing for the Upturn" program was also launched, with S$100m of funding to improve employees' skills, with a particular focus on engineering and technical staff.

Longer-term investment has involved improvement to training and other facilities for workers on Jurong Island - where Singapore's chemical industry is based.

And back in 2002, the EDB established the Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences. The institute's role includes improving exploratory research, process development, optimization and problem-solving skills.

In 2004, the Chemical Process Technology Centre was established on Jurong Island to support the training of new entrants to the chemical industry, and to enhance the capabilities of existing employees.

"We lack the glamour of the financial sector or IT"

A. Chockalingam, process integrator, Shell Eastern Petroleum 

Development of talent has been boosted through the EDB's partnership with global energy services provider Petrofac, which runs safety and skills-improvement courses on Jurong. As for the SCIC, its ChemEx program involves inviting students and teachers from Singapore's Institute of Technical Education, its five polytechnics, the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University to Jurong Island. This year's event attracted almost 600 attendees.

"ChemEx, which we launched in 2008, is about trying to overcome the false impression that the chemicals industry is dirty and dangerous," Chockalingam adds.

"Another issue we need to work on is that a job in chemicals is seen as low status. Graduates also much prefer to work in the city center, rather than Jurong, even though facilities on the island have been greatly improved."

A causeway links Jurong to the mainland, for example, whereas in the 1990s, the only link to downtown Singapore was by boat.

One of the unique challenges facing Singapore is the fact that as it's such a tiny country, its chemical production facilities and the financial, shopping and entertainment districts are all very close together

This geography heightens competition from other industries for technical operators and chemical engineering graduates.

Just about everywhere in the world, chemical plants are located hundreds of miles from capital cities or other big financial centers. Take Wilton, on Teesside, in the UK, for example, where SABIC UK Petrochemicals is based. If you have grown up in an area such as Wilton - hundreds of miles from London - it's where all your friends and family come from.

As a result, the potential labor pool may be less tempted to relocate to London, which would also involve working outside the chemical industry.

"Another issue for Asia, in general, is that people-management jobs pay around five to 10 times more than jobs at the technical operations level - a much wider gap than in Europe," added Cheung.

"This makes retaining good technical staff very difficult, as all big multinational companies follow Human Resource consultancy pay benchmarking to determine pay scales and increments.

"Average pay in benchmarking studies of technical operators is dragged down by this big disparity, and the fact that there is not enough distinction made between skilled and non-skilled technical staff."

One possible solution to this problem - which arose during a discussion that took place between the SCIC and ICIS while this feature was being researched - was to improve non-salary benefits for technical workers.

Most earn too little to join sports clubs and so subsidized or even free membership could be provided, suggested Cheung. A debate also took place around whether sports and recreation clubs should be developed on Jurong or on the Singapore mainland.

This again brought up the poor image of Jurong and the chemical industry in general.

"We lack the glamour of the financial sector or IT - plus there are all the environmental concerns," Chockalingam adds.

"The answer to that question, quite honestly, is 'we don't know.' All we can do is to keep working on the problem," says Chockalingam.

One of the suggestions also made during the SCIC and ICIS discussion was to build pride in actually making something - rather than trading in the financial derivatives that caused the global economic crisis.

Justifiable pride was clearly in evidence among Shell staff at the official inauguration of the company's 750,000 tonne/year OMEGA process monethylene glycol (MEG) plant on Jurong - which took place last November.

The stakes are high for Singapore, because chemicals are such a crucial part of its economy. Output from the energy and chemical sectors reached S$97bn in 2008, according to preliminary EDB estimates.

The energy and chemical industries combined are the largest contributors to Singapore's manufacturing output, accounting for 38.6% of total output, the board adds.

These are strong motives to continue ever-more innovative ways to attract and retain the right amount and quality of people.

Join the ICIS Recruitment Campaign forum

By: John Richardson
+65 6780 4359

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