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iGaming Capital – An Interview with Ben Pace Lehner

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Skills in the Sector

In January 2020, a survey by the MGA revealed that 730 jobs remained unfilled by Malta-based companies by the end of 2018 due to a skills shortage in the country. Firstly, what’s your take on these recent findings and do they reflect your experience within the recruitment sector?

From our day-to-day experiences recruiting for the iGaming sector, I can corroborate the MGA’s recent findings and most notably the lack of good developers and other tech talents in Malta, though I would expand it to cover all STEM skills. I would, however, like to see further statistics related to language-specific roles which I believe makes up a significant portion of the operational marketing roles.

These would consist of native speaking content writers, customer care agents, affiliate managers and account managers. The demand for languages also applies to live game presenters or dealers, which do not seem to be mentioned in the report at all. A role which is always in demand and often has a high staff turnover rate.

While the report mentions the recruitment and retention strategies, internal training, and educational programmes to help close the skills gap, these are not enough to close the language barrier. Further studies should be carried out in relation to the sourcing and relocation of international talent to Malta. It should also analyse the number of foreign employees that are leaving Malta and why.

For example, when looking for STEM candidates, Sweden is a hotbed after having invested heavily in new schools and institutions focussing on those skills. Ukraine can be considered a close second for tech talent.

This is the only way companies can overcome this hurdle and operate in specific markets or open new ones such as Japan and Korea. We need to identify the best locations for international talent, how these countries are nurturing and developing their talent, and what is required to attract and relocate this talent to Malta. For example, Sweden’s investment in new schools and institutions focussing on STEM skills make it a hotbed for tech-related candidates, however, they also offer high salaries making it harder to attract their talent to Malta without other better benefits such as the lifestyle and work-life balance.

Comparisons need to be made with regards to the retention strategies adopted in Malta versus those abroad, though the iGaming industry has been a catalyst for change for Malta’s HR, employee benefits, and work-life balance.

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How has the recruitment sector been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and how would you assess the current state of the jobs market within the iGaming sector?

Covid-19 had a major impact on the recruitment industry and was classified as an “Annex A” sector by Malta Enterprise. Within a week of the outbreak in Malta, we started to receive feedback from clients putting roles on hold due to the uncertainty. Over the following three weeks things slowed down drastically. Companies needed to make quick decisions to safeguard the health of their businesses and employees. This required setting up for a rapid shift to remote working, while HR departments were overloaded with Teleworking agreements, new policies and dealing with concerns of their employees. Consequently, companies cancelled interviews or shifted to video interviewing, delayed taking decisions on new hires and even rescinded offers in some cases, due to the inability to handle onboarding and training remotely.

iGaming certainly had its fair share of ups and downs throughout the pandemic. The Lockdowns and the cancellation of sporting events across the globe have wreaked havoc on sports betting revenues but the industries resilience and willingness to adapt to changes, such as the big rise in esports, is what saved the sports betting segment from being decimated. On the other hand, online casinos, bingo, and poker had a phenomenal increase in new registrations and deposits due to a significant portion of the world’s population being in lockdown.

On the whole, the iGaming sector handled the situation extremely well and adapted their staff in most departments and roles other than live game presenters to work remotely. As the number of new active cases started to decrease and Malta acclimatised to a new normal, iGaming companies were the first to kick off their recruitment efforts which have been a challenge due to the need for expatriate workers which haven’t been able to relocate to Malta or get their work permits processed.

Have you noticed an increase or decrease in demand for specific roles within the industry over the past months? And if so, for which roles?

With the global spotlight on Malta and much stricter AML procedures, we have seen a significant increase in demand for experienced candidates in Compliance and AML with fierce competition over the best candidates which often have offers from three, four, or more companies at the same time. As a result, the salaries in this sector have also increased.

On the other hand, the Covid-19 pandemic has also caused a shift in Malta’s employment market which has balanced the previously heavily biased employee’s market in most industries and sectors other than iGaming which still faces strong competition when sourcing the best candidates. Most notably for IT or developer roles and language-specific jobs due to foreign candidates fear of relocating to another country during uncertain times.

Additionally, the closure of airports and the demand for specific languages such as Japanese, Korean, Swedish, Norwegian and German resulted in an increase of head-hunting and poaching within the sector which in turn drove up the salaries for those specific roles.

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Now that the situation has stabilised and businesses are re-opening their doors and starting to return to a kind of normality, do you think the pandemic could create a demand for different/specific skill sets within iGaming companies?

Coming out on the other side of this pandemic, the world has had to adjust to a new normal and I strongly urge employers to make remote working a part of the new norm, by implanting a hybrid approach and roster system which can offer the best of both worlds. The potential to increase performance through flexibility and independence gained through remote working and the collaborative and creative energy from a face-to-face physical environment.

A shift of this nature will require more resource within the IT department which will now also be responsible for assisting with the setup of home offices and the management or support of remote working tools while maintaining a high level of availability and security.

I also anticipate additional workload on the HR department due to the additional policies and requirements. In the same way, the demand for team and project leaders should also increase with larger teams being split up for more efficient and effective communication and management when working remotely.

What do you think will be the main challenges but also opportunities for gaming operators from a recruitment perspective in the months ahead?

The main challenges are without a doubt related to sourcing foreign workers. While airports are opening up in the coming weeks, candidates are hesitant to relocate in fear of another outbreak and not being able to return home, adding to the pressure of adjusting to a new job, new work environment, and build a new support network. Add to this the concern of a Last-In-First-Out situation where companies are more likely to shed their newest staff in the event of an economic slump, convincing candidates to move company whether locally or from abroad has become a much bigger challenge.

On the other hand, rental prices have dipped due to the outbreak, which I expect to have a positive impact on retaining talent that was considering leaving Malta due to the high rents and stagnated salaries. This should also alleviate concerns over the impact of Malta’s rental market voiced by several leaders in the iGaming industry which should reconsider plans to move any part of their operations overseas.

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