HIRING & HR INTERVIEWS
"People who can't improvise are suffering the most," reveals Qasim MB, senior hiring consultant
The COVID-19 global pandemic and worldwide lockdowns have created a chaotic and turbulent situation for the job market. Many businesses have lost revenue sources practically overnight, leading to significant staff reductions and retrenchments. Find out how to stay relevant in the post-COVID world, explore emerging HR trends and discover the must-have skills for career success.
By Jan Takacs, 2nd June 2020
We need to adapt fast
Jan: Hello, Qasim. Welcome. Thank you for taking the time. Let's start with the MCO (movement control order) and Malaysia. What were your thoughts when the MCO began - and everything changed practically overnight? What went through your head?
Qasim: Hello, Jan, thank you for the invitation. I think the very first thought that came to my mind was, "What are we going to do? What's going to happen with our daily jobs?" Because when we talk about working from home, it was all of a sudden. It wasn't like in China; it wasn't like in Singapore, where you had everything pre-planned. For us, it was like, "Okay, you're not going to come to the office from tomorrow onwards. We're going to be all working from home."
There was neither any preparation nor any infrastructure in place. It didn't sink in until the second week when we were like, "Okay, now we are in this for a long run. It's not just going to be a week or so." And that's when you realize, "Okay, we need to adapt, and we need to adapt fast if we want to stay ahead of competitors."
"If you look at it as a country, we know that in terms of adopting technology, Malaysia has always been a follower rather than a leader."
Do you think that the fact that most of the companies in Malaysia were inadequately prepared - that was the biggest struggle? Would better preparation mitigate most of the problems?
Yes and no. I think that you need to keep in mind the overall setup of the Malaysian market. I mean, if you look at it as a country, we know that in terms of adopting technology, Malaysia has always been a follower rather than a leader. Whether it is in terms of developing new technologies or in terms of taking risks, so when it comes to having that strong, robust infrastructure, we are very behind.
The working from home culture is not practised yet. Only a very few selected companies that have more global exposure - they do practise that. So I think, yes, the biggest struggle was that companies were not ready, especially when you're looking at bigger organizations: telcos, banks, oil and gas and others. They were not ready at all.
And for example, banks, they don't even have a proper infrastructure that is in the cloud. They have physical data centres because of the many various regulations. They still need people to be present there. So I think, to answer your question, yes. That was, I would say, the biggest struggle.
The reason I said no is that it was slightly easier for smaller firms. Like tech start-ups, more mature product companies that have been working from home anyway, or they're working on a remote basis. For them, it wasn't such a big shift. And I know personally, I've had numerous conversations with these clients who didn't feel it was a struggle for them. So overall, yeah, a mix of both.
It took a long time for many to realize that a traditional work-setup will look like this for the foreseeable future, not just for short-term.
What are some of the emerging trends that you see happening in the world of hiring & HR right now? Are they connected explicitly to specific industries?
I think it is pretty straight forward in terms of which industries have been affected (by COVID) and which haven't been. If you bucket them into different categories, you will see that tourism, travel, leisure, hospitality, property, all of these have taken a massive hit. They are not hiring at all. We have seen them in the news that they have been retrenching their staff. They've been asking staff to take forced unpaid leaves, pay cuts. Some companies have asked for 30% - 40% pay cut.
And then there are start-ups, who we thought would cope well because their products and solutions are purely internet-based. But then again, they are dependent on how other markets are doing. Hence they have also been affected, and they're also laying off their staff.
I think every single day, I get on a call with the senior person in the business, and the very first thing they say is, "Qasim, I'm also looking out." And the person is a C or a C-1.
And it's because start-ups are primarily tight on cash-flow. They have investors' money, but it's very tight, and the margins are way too low. They (usually) don't think long-term. They look for spikes; they look for short term goals. Hence, this MCO has been a massive problem for them. They almost stopped hiring completely.
I can see a bit of positive light from certain banks and telcos. They are starting to hire more tech people. And the reason for that is, as I said earlier in the very first question, some of these bigger companies were not ready. Infrastructure was not there. So, they're hiring a lot of cloud engineers, for example. They're hiring a lot of machine learning and automation specialists. Because they know when things become normal, or the new normal, as we're calling it now, they will need these people. And they want to be ready before that kicks in.
"Every single day, I get on a call with a senior person in the business, and the very first thing they say is, "Qasim, I'm also looking out."
Would you say that hiring strategies are now more connected to particular roles, skillsets, talents and capabilities than ever before?
Yes. The thing is, again, it's subjective. When you look at people in Malaysia or candidates in Malaysia in general, they are commonly good at one specific thing. And they don't necessarily diversify or branch out to other areas. When a pandemic like COVID-19 happens, you have to wear multiple hats to stay competitive. You have to think out of the box. That's where the challenge lies for talent in Malaysia.
Companies are trying to keep multi-talented employees, who can function differently, wear multiple hats, improvise, and have those strong interpersonal skills. Because that's what's needed to survive in such a tough environment, they are keeping such employees. They are also happy to bring in such employees amid this turmoil, and I don't think they would ever completely stop hiring such multi-faceted talent.
But, when it comes to the other end of the scale where people are too specialized in one particular thing and can't improvise, can't think out of the box, these are the people suffering the most.
COVID lockdowns caused spikes in hirings for machine learning, cloud and data engineers due to increased demand in the digital economy.
Now, let's think from the employee's perspective. You have just been retrenched, or laid off. What do you think is the best approach right now? Should the people who've been retrenched or laid off wait and see? Or aggressively look for opportunities right away? What is your point of view on this?
Oh, that's a great question. I think the very first thing we need to realize that it's a harsh environment right now. The very first step is the acknowledgement part. The people who have been retrenched need to acknowledge that it's not because they are not good, it's not because they lack something, it's because of the circumstances. It's because of what has happened, which is beyond anyone's control. You can't do much about it; businesses are laying off people because they have to, it's not that they want to. I think that's the very first step.
The second step would be, don't wait for the new opportunity to just pop-up. I don't think you have to wait until things become normal because it's never going to be like that. I mean, we'll never go back to the old days that we were used to, pre MCO. Pre COVID. What I would suggest to these people who have been retrenched, is to upskill. During these hard times, do courses, lots of training, practice, learn something relevant and new and maybe get a career coach!
On top of that, what's essential for these people who have been retrenched is to build credibility in the market. I understand it's easier said than done, but what's important is that this person knows where does his or her strength lie, and try to create a personal brand out there because recruitment has changed in the last five years.
People don't look at CVs anymore. I, as a specialist tech recruiter who recruits in this space and as someone who talks to clients every day. I can honestly say that it's not just about your CV anymore. CV's are very HR centric. I mean, HR people would still look at CVs, but your hiring manager is not going to look at the CVs. They are going to look at the work you have done, and the credibility you have built in the market.
"Don't wait for the new opportunity to just pop-up. We will never go back to the old days that we were used to."
The best thing to do for retrenched employees is not to wait. The way to go is to act proactively - upskilling, learning or building an online presence.
It seems essential to acknowledge the fact that it is not about CVs anymore and that the way how you represent yourself on the outside is way more important than having a great resume. I think that's truly valuable for people to understand.
Yeah, exactly. It's more so about the impact you have had in your previous roles, rather than bullet points of your responsibilities. I was reading this book the other day, Show Your Work by Austin Kleon - and it just mentioned that you don't have to be an expert to showcase your abilities. You don't have to know everything about everything.
If you know something, you can already demonstrate that. And it's going to help someone. And that creates some sort of credibility for you in the market out there because people talk. And whether we like it or not, networking, and then knowing the right people at the right time at the right juncture, is going to help accelerate your career. Platforms like LinkedIn can serve as a great tool to establish your brand.
"People are going to look at the work you have done, and the credibility you have built in the market."
Is there something specific that you need to do differently from a Malaysian perspective? Or is this approach applicable anywhere in ASEAN, or even worldwide?
One of the main things that I've realized is... I mean, I've worked in Australia, I've lived in different parts of the world as well, and now I am back in Malaysia. The significant difference I've seen between candidates here and overseas is being a T-shaped professional.
I think that we already mentioned it. A lot of people here are good at a particular subject, which is not bad, but they only focus on that one thing. They don't diversify; they don't branch out, looking at learning other things. They're just happy; they're content with what they're getting in terms of salary, in terms of job scope, in terms of challenges. And they're stuck with that for five years, and then ten years, and even more,... They don't upskill themselves. And I'm not talking about the primary hard skills only; I'm talking about interpersonal communication, leadership skills, and everything else.
People in other countries, the reason a particular talent is more mature there is that they do that. They take the initiative to learn new things and challenge themselves and step out of their comfort zone.
That's the very first thing I realized with candidates over here in Malaysia. They should obviously find a niche, be known for something, but then branch out. Be a T-shaped person who can go deep in one thing, but then also diversify. That will open a lot of doors for you.
The book Show Your Work by Austin Kleon reveals that you don't have to be an expert to showcase your abilities. You can start modestly.
What kind of a people, talents, or capabilities do you see that are going to be the most relevant in the post COVID world or the next couple of years? We were talking a lot about the fact that people need to learn more. If you can advise potential candidates how they can be more successful in the future, in terms of hiring, do you have anything specific in your mind?
In general, everyone needs to diversify. What I see in Malaysia is that people would need to know more about how do you move from legacy to digital systems, because there is still a lot of companies in Malaysia that run on legacy systems. And I'm talking about successful Malaysian companies that are doing well, but they're still on a legacy.
And COVID pushed all these companies to be digital-first. A lot of demand is going to be in the automation sector as well. Candidates should focus on learning how do we automate processes, engineer processes using artificial intelligence and machine learning. There is going to be a huge demand in that area.
Additionally, there is one thing I've realized being in the recruitment industry for a while now. I've been talking to my cross-functional colleagues as well about this; people are looking for hybrid candidates.
So, for example, your product manager now needs to know how to go out, talk to clients, do the pitching part as well. They need to understand how the business operates and have that commercial acumen. You can't be a product manager sitting behind the computer and talking to your peers all day and be successful. That's not the kind of people companies are looking for. As a product manager, you need to know how to sell your product.
A lot of emphases has to be on soft skills going forward because people who are going to be successful post-COVID are the ones that know how to talk and know how to present. You can have great technical skills, but if you don't know how to talk, it's going to be very difficult post-COVID. Those would be the key things I would say.
"Candidates who are going to be successful post-COVID are the ones that know how to talk and know how to present."
Qasim is sharing his thoughts with peers during a training session.
That is an excellent sharing. Any last comments you would like to highlight or mention for the readers before we wrap up?
I would like to highlight that one of the essential things local candidates in Malaysia generally lack is that they are not actively known in side hustling. They are working for retirement. That's the mindset of (most) people we have here. We work for 30, 40 years, and then we retire, and then that's going to be our life.
That's where the biggest gap lies. The last few years, the difference I've seen between a local candidate or a candidate who's working in Malaysia compared to the ones overseas, for example, is the attitude towards taking risks.
And a lot of people here don't take risks. That's the biggest drawback. It is incredibly challenging to be successful without taking risks. And I think the COVID life has forced us to take risks. Everyone has to take risks, and there's no easy way out – we all need to buckle up and control the controllable!
Thank you very much for all the answers, Qasim.
My pleasure, Jan!
At Hays, Qasim recruits experienced candidates who are skilled in Digital Transformation, Product Management, UX and Emerging technologies. He is among Top 4 Billing Consultants for the whole of Hays Malaysia for the year 2019/20. To get in touch, drop him a note
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