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In the war for talent, fintech companies need a new playbook

A skills crunch is forcing companies to rethink recruitment beyond pantries and pastries.

“There will always be a talent crunch in the fintech space,” Hayley Yap says emphatically, “because new businesses are coming in, new initiatives, which means we are always looking for people who can do more or do something different.” Yap knows a thing or two about this as the Group Head of People at Singlife, a 1,500-strong technology-empowered financial services company.

“So, how do you keep that stream going in a sector that moves faster than we can say hello?” she asks rhetorically. Indeed, that is the million-dollar question for the fintech landscape.

The Singapore fintech market is highly competitive and fragmented. Even so, in its report, Mordor Intelligence says the city-state has proven to be the largest market for the fintech industry throughout Asia. In terms of transaction value, the Singapore fintech market size is expected to grow from US$38.8 billion ($52.2 billion) this year to US$63.1 billion by 2029.

2023 was a challenging year for the city-state’s fintech sector, marked by a decline in funding activity. According to the 2023 Fintech Talent report jointly compiled by Accenture and the Singapore Fintech Association, the funding squeeze will continue this year, along with uncertain growth prospects. This is why fintech companies appear less gung-ho about adding to Singapore’s 18,000-strong fintech workforce.

Talent pitfalls

Macroeconomic headwinds aside, Yap, 50, points out that “talent” is a relative term. Because a company in the seed or early stages of growth versus those that have passed that, is looking for different kinds of skilled individuals. “As companies mature and find their space in the business, you need a different pool of talent,” Yap explains. “Those with a track record and experience.”

Over half of the firms (56 per cent) cited in the Accenture report said one of their hiring challenges was a skills gap in candidates. This is despite an increase in the local graduate supply. Imran Johri’s theory is that part of the reason lies in the speed at which fintech moves. Imran is the head of marketing for Rently, a Singapore-based fintech startup in the property space. “There is just not enough time for the industry and the available talent pool to catch up, “he says. “So sometimes, you end up picking the next best talent.”

Another reason he observed is that local talent has not yet developed the muscle to accept failure in a landscape as dynamic as fintech. “Fintech requires thinking outside the box and for people to fail and fail again,” he explains. “Our education system is not yet preparing the kids here for that.”

Linda Lee, SVP of People at Coda Payments, Southeast Asia’s fintech unicorn, is more circumspect. She reasons that softer skills like resilience and agility are harder to come by because those cannot be taught easily in schools or at home. “It comes through experience and working in environments where a company’s culture enables people to fail fast and learn quickly.”

The invisible lever

Indeed, the Accenture report highlighted company culture and leadership as “the invisible lever and enabler” to attract and retain talent. It turns out that 66 per cent of employees join fintech firms for the quality of their leaders and teams, whilst over half join for the company culture. This matters because, as Imran points out, “people leave because of people”.

With a staff strength of 18 — some based in Sweden and Turkey — Imran, 49, credits what he describes as the “call-out culture” at Rently for enabling many of its millennial and Gen Z employees to thrive and, more importantly, stay with the company. “If their work is good, we praise them openly. If it is not, we tell them so”.


Culture is also front and centre at Singapore-based firm Coda Payments, which powers payments for digital content and gaming. With some 430 employees across 32 countries, it secured a Great Place to Work (GPTW) certification for three years in Singapore, the latest being in July 2023. Last month, it also achieved GPTW certifications in Indonesia and Thailand.

Lee puts it down to the firm’s core values, instilled by its co-founders, Paul Leishman and Neil Davidson, that centre around collaboration. “We are across many time zones, so we must work together and support each other to get things done quickly here. What I have found since joining Coda is that we’re always willing to help each other out, which is great,” she says.

What talents want

What is perhaps not so great for many companies, including those in the fintech space, is that post-pandemic, they have had to grapple with changing talent expectations. Millennials and Gen Z, who comprise the bulk of the workforce in many fintech companies, seek meaning and purpose at work.

There is just not enough time for the industry and the available talent pool to catch up.

Meanwhile, Lee has observed that candidates are now more keen to learn about the company’s culture at interviews. “They want some assurance that the next company they work for will look out for their well-being,” she says, “and value not only what they bring to the company but value them as people as well.”  

As for Yap, she says the challenge now is sustaining employees’ interest so they continue to stay with the company. Since 2022, Singlife has held the #BetterIdeaChallenge, or what it informally calls the Innovation Olympics. The competition allows employees to generate innovative ideas, create a business case, and get sponsors to back them — “a bit like crowdfunding”, Yap explains — and eventually bring their idea to fruition. Over 60 employees participated in 2022. That number rose to over 80 last year.

At this point, saying that culture is essential to a company’s success is a truism bordering on cliche. However, some truths are worth repeating, and this is especially true in fintech. The good news is that while some talent attrition is unavoidable, a thoughtful corporate culture can help tick all the boxes and attract and retain the best of them. This is particularly so for millennials and Gen Z, who, like many before them, are changing the rules in the labour market by prioritising work-life balance and mental health.

The bad news is that it will take more than just cookies and fresh fruits at the office pantry. Instead, it will require redefining what it means to be a company of choice and, unsurprisingly, tearing out the old playbook for talent hiring and retention.

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