“We have to stop losing our millennials”

21 April 2016

Author: Justin Harper


“We have to stop losing our millennials”

Lawrence Tan, HR director of Singapore’s strategically vital water agency, is tackling pipeline issues far removed from H2O

You could say water is in Lawrence Tan’s blood. He has worked for the Public Utilities Board (Singapore’s national water agency, and one of the country’s most strategically important organisations) for the entirety of his three-decade career, the last 10 years as HR director. It’s a role the former engineer and change management practitioner says he relishes, not least because a significant proportion of the agency’s 3,400 headcount come from a similar engineering background. Safeguarding Singapore’s precious water supply is a mission close to his heart but, given the constrained supply of young engineers coming through the ranks and an ageing population, can he be optimistic about meeting it?
 

How has your role changed since you first took it on?
My first role in HR was asking: ‘How does HR add value to the business?’’ I think I have moved the HR team along so that it can help the business deliver its results, as opposed to just having fanciful HR theories and philosophies. When I first arrived, I introduced business partnering. Over the years, by improving HR workflow processes, we have become strategic partners in the development of the business.
 
Now I ask: ‘How do I continually enable staff to upgrade and retrain themselves? How do I do training differently so it’s always at their fingertips?’’ And: ‘How do I ensure staff have the appropriate job exposure so that they can better hone their knowledge and skillset?’ I am focusing on these areas as we need to continually ensure that our people remain competent, and that the organisation has the capacity to undertake new and expanded roles.
 
How do you handle the industrial relations aspect of the role, which is so crucial under the tripartite model?
Whenever a new member of staff comes in, they tend to think the union might be antagonistic towards management. But as HR director, I encourage them to join the union. They are our strategic partners in many ways, including in communication and staff alignment. We have regular meetings and talk about operational issues. Before I roll something out to the staff, I run it by the union first. I may have the best idea, but by running it past them I can fine-tune it and make it more effective and palatable. They are a key partner in motivating staff and encouraging them to retrain. In town hall meetings and company-wide events, we accord them a protocol level similar to our senior management.
 
Given Singapore’s ageing population, does PUB have a policy towards the mature workforce?
Our philosophy is this: why should a person’s age be a consideration in fitness to work, as long as they are physically fit and they have the right skillset to do the job? We must see the mature workforce as a key resource that we can effectively deploy. The important thing is they are willing to be retrained where needed.
 
Your staff turnover is around 2 per cent. Why do you think that is?
We have a sense of alignment and values that drive us to do our jobs. Because the mission is simple, the core values help us align the workforce. We believe in meritocracy and career progression for our staff – those who perform well and have the potential to take on a larger job should be given the opportunity to progress faster in their career.
 
However, while we have a high retention rate, we found that, among people who are young and have less than three years’ service, 30 per cent will leave within that time. Millennials need a sense of engagement, to share our sense of purpose and to know we are looking out for them. So we introduced a mentor scheme and a foundation programme, where senior leaders explain to them what our imperatives are – sharing our concerns and challenges for the future. We encourage them to ask us questions and propose improvements to the organisation. Our most recent data show that, today, only one in five leaves in that period.
 
Where else are you using data analytics in your HR efforts?
I always ask the question: ‘What does the future PUB workforce look like and can we better organise ourselves, based on the skills that I want?’ That means looking at the age profile, and whether there are enough people to replace those who retire. For that, I need data. It helps me work out what is out there in the market, and realise the number of people enrolling in engineering schools is decreasing, for example. We need to increase the pool to improve both quality and quantity.
 
What can you do about the engineering talent pipeline?
Sadly, I think the youth of today do not find engineering sexy. We are looking at ways to better brand ourselves and engineering as a whole. We have a public sector-wide initiative, as we want our brighter minds to move into such professions. There are lots of infrastructure projects coming up, not just within PUB. We need a lot of good engineering staff to come forward and we need to ensure they understand that an engineering career is exciting and there is ample opportunity for career progression. It’s not all about wearing a hard hat on a construction site, it’s a career that helps shape Singapore’s landscape and manage the vast infrastructure we have.