The pandemic has the inadvertent effect of helping to raise awareness in how technology has become an essential driving force for businesses and our lives.
However, there is a key issue to be addressed: The shortage of talent. With the growing demand for people with relevant skills, companies face difficulties in both talent attraction and retention. This has a direct bearing on how quickly companies can get on the digital transformation journey and therefore a likely issue affecting the bottom lines too. The industry now suffers a not insignificant attrition rate of easily 20%.
Huawei is taking a proactive approach. The journey of digital transformation cannot be done alone. It has been working closely with the various institutes of higher learning to help groom the new generation of tech talent.
“As a technology enabler, we are actually happy to learn together with the different countries and local communities, learning also how to use our technologies to overcome and add more value for the communities,” says Huawei International CEO Foo Fang Yong in an interview with DigitalEdge Singapore.
Instead of just working with universities on talent development, Huawei makes it a point to work with the polytechnics as well. Foo says many of the IT-trained polytechnic graduates did not go on and work in this field. This is due to many tech jobs requiring a degree and that the pay offered to university graduates can be significantly higher than that offered to polytechnic graduates, who could only draw a salary even lower than what they can earn doing food delivery.
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“It’s not something undoable as long as you’re hardworking enough. But once you go down that path, to us, it is the loss of an asset, a loss of talent. And this is an issue that’s not being treated too seriously by the industry and the government either,” he adds.
Foo believes many polytechnic graduates are very talented and hardworking, and that with the right training, they can very well be groomed to be the kind of tech talents needed by organisations of all kinds. “Actually, in Huawei, we don’t differentiate whether you are a poly or university graduate. We will hire you for a certain opening if we think you are qualified, and all of them will start from the same salary.”
Fundamentally, Huawei’s approach is about addressing the shortage of talent. Given the company’s heft — similar to other big tech companies — it can deal with this problem by poaching from other organisations.
However, the company knows tech talent is needed not just for its own people. Its own customers, especially the small and medium-sized businesses, need their own share of tech talent and when it comes to competing for good people, they are already not on the same level playing field.
On Dec 13 last year, Huawei announced it has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the National University of Singapore Business Analytics Centre (NUS BAC), as part of its wider talent nurturing efforts.
Under the terms of the MOU, Huawei and NUS BAC will help drive among students and researchers alike a deeper understanding of big data, cloud computing, and business analytics technologies, and their applications to the digital transformation of enterprises.
Last December, the company also marked the tenth anniversary of its flagship corporate social responsibility programme in Singapore, called Seeds for the Future. The same year, Huawei marked its 20th anniversary operating in Singapore. In a renewed push, Huawei announced last July the updated version of the programme with a US$150 million global investment commitment in digital talent development over the next five years.
Since its inception, around 200 students from Singapore have gone through structured training in digital skills and gained exposure to the workings of Huawei in areas ranging from information and communications technologies (ICT), including cloud computing, Internet of Things (IoT), and 5G.
Beyond mobile networks
The need for a non-stop pipeline for tech talent is for a good reason — given how the tech industry is constantly evolving, even within specific industry segments such as mobile networks.
Huawei has, in recent years, become one of the leading players in providing next-generation mobile networks. In contrast to 4G, the bigger potential and use cases of the current 5G networks go beyond connecting individual mobile users, but in providing the communications infrastructure for entire industries for their machines and devices. For example, cranes and other machinery used in the container ports can be remotely controlled via 5G networks, while mines can be operated by machinery controlled by operators elsewhere.
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Foo says Huawei has already accumulated a lot of experience and domain knowledge on how to apply 5G networks and is actively sharing this with potential users outside China. “What we are doing now is focusing on delivering our solutions, showcasing our value, and now, we believe we will have a role to play,” he adds.
Besides mobile networks, Huawei has in recent years developed into a major player in other ICT areas such as cloud computing and AI — complementary areas that can deliver more value when combined together instead of being used in isolation.
For a company that spent RMB141.9 billion on R&D in 2020, one can assume there is plenty of activity going on within the labs of Huawei, including so-called disruptive technologies adjacent to what traditionally has been defined as ICT. For example, Huawei has R&D on-going on autonomous vehicles. Foo says expanding into this field started with Huawei recognising early on that the car industry will switch from fossil fuel to electricity sooner or later.
With its existing capabilities in fibre optics, the company has ready domain expertise that has evolved into capabilities in optical sensor technology. Combined with AI, these are the key building blocks of autonomous driving. “So, it is a very natural course,” he continues.
While Huawei is not about to become a full-fledged autonomous electric vehicle (EV) car maker, Foo draws a similarity with its mobile networks business: It sells its technology and products to the mobile operators, instead of becoming a mobile operator of its own. Similarly, it has cloud computing capabilities, but it will not become an e-commerce operator. “We have always been restricting ourselves from doing things that will deviate from making us to be an enabler,” he says.
Besides autonomous driving, Huawei has also ventured into digital power management, with a focus on the growing renewable energy industry. The genesis started from problems the company was trying to tackle: How to lower the power consumption of its telecommunications equipment, which led to plenty of studies, R&D on adjacent aspects such as the efficient distribution, transmission of power.
You have to make sure there’s a business case for the technology. If the cost is too prohibitive, there’s no pointFoo Fang Yong, Huawei International CEO
As a CEO, the key priority is typically to generate growth for the topline, earnings, footprint, amongst others. However, Foo says at this juncture his focus is also on how technology can be better adopted by more organisations in the various markets.
From his base here in Singapore, Foo wants the company’s activities here to be the beacon, the lighthouse, for the rest of Asean region. This applies to areas such as data centres, where because of the cost of transmission and other factors, the cost of running data centres here is actually among the lowest in the region.
He continues: “Although Singapore is a small country, it can be a showcase centre for Huawei — whatever we do over here can be replicable elsewhere, from both business and technology perspectives. So that’s actually another of my ambitions and aspirations.”
Photo: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore