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iGaming talent impossible to recruit, needs to be headhunted

Dean Nicholls, CEO at iGaming Elite

Retention of staff in the iGaming industry is starting to mature. However, finding talent is increasingly difficult as salaries are no longer enough of a draw for talent to move to Malta, according to professional headhunting and talent acquisition firm iGaming Elite.

Malta’s iGaming sector has hundreds of unfilled vacancies. Can you briefly tell us about the roots of iGaming Elite and explain how you can help companies find the best and the brightest?

I arrived in Malta about seven years ago, originally as internal acquisition manager for another company. However, they were not massively committed to keeping their office open in Malta and after a while wanted to move it back to the HQ in the UK. I had only been in Malta for one year then, and there was no way that I was going to move. So I started my own business – in my living room with a whiteboard up against the wall. I only had two interns helping me. Malta’s iGaming industry was already thriving, and I came up against a market with a few established recruitment companies. However, we differ by being a headhunting company. We take on talent acquisition assignments as full-exclusives. It allows us to do things methodically and not rush it because we are up against somebody else. I bet we are the only recruitment company on the island without a database. We now have 13 staff and are aiming to employ 25 people by the end of 2017.

How are the recruitment procedures within the industry structured at the moment, and what advice would you give companies struggling to find the right people?

You don’t find top talent by advertising vacancies on job boards in Malta and across Europe. You need to headhunt the right people and offer them the right package. For example, designers and developers might go only for greenfield projects. They fit well in a start-up or medium-sized business, but it is difficult getting them to go into a remit with half-finished projects. To attract them, you need to offer them creative freedom.

If I were an operator myself, an internal talent acquisition team is the first thing I would create. But it needs to be done with caution. Ultimately, the most important people for your business are the people who work there. Talent acquisition teams therefore must be the most talented people themselves to build a resilient business.

From what we understand, the gaming industry seems to be in a constant recruiting mode. What are the reasons for high employee turnover?

Yes, it is, but there have been some changes over the last three years. The retention is improving. When I first started, retention was so poor that people were leaving after three to six months. Competitors could pull them out for €3,000 extra per year, it was an absolute mess. Now companies are starting to realise that people are working for them. Employees are looked after a whole lot better than before. The new players that have popped up in the last years have changed the game. They differ by not simply doing well financially but also by looking after their staff. Six years ago, you could recruit an affiliate manager for a basic salary of €35,000, and there was an abundance. Today you will have absolutely no chance at that salary, because they are worth a lot of money.

How have salaries changed within iGaming in the last three to four years?

Changes have been felt across the board, starting with entry-level customer service roles. For developers, we have seen an increase of 10 to 15%. Starting salaries range between €30,000 and €50,000, depending on coding languages and front-end or back-end development. When it comes to more artistic roles, everything has changed completely. Five years ago, everyone employed a graphic designer to do flash banners on Photoshop, while art assets were acquired from the suppliers. Now it is a completely different kettle of fish. Today you can have a graphic designer for €35,000-40,000, while for an animator companies need to fork out an additional €10,000. There is no limit for C-suite salaries. We recently assigned a COO at €200,000 basic. Companies are also giving equity, especially the start-ups.

How important are salaries for staff retention?

Competing with salaries on a mid- to senior-level is lot more difficult today. For instance, you cannot recruit an affiliate manager only with a salary. They carry a huge network of affiliates with them. If they have a network with hundreds of affiliates that can bring an additional €5 million a year, how do you monetise that value? They need to be looked after with soft measures.

Apart from money, what are operators offering employees now?

They offer proper health insurance, free lunches or an internal restaurant. Some have subsidised apartments or company apartments. If someone relocates from another country, they accommodate them in a company apartment for a few months until they get settled. This makes it a lot better financially for new employees. Designers today are not only given a laptop, but a bunch of tools. As I already said, for them it is all about greenfield and the pay only comes at the later stage of the conversation.

What is the turnover of staff within the industry at the moment?

In general, the churn in these positions is higher than anywhere else. However, there are two elements one needs to consider: internal relocation and pre-defined temporary work. We have people entering the sector to be a customer service adviser with the aim to be promoted and move around within the structure of iGaming companies. When the client – the operator – can retain that person but in a different, higher level, then for us it is retention. The other element is talent coming over to sunny Malta to enjoy themselves. They take a job for six months to a year and then they are gone. As a recruiter, it is challenging but we don’t offer a rebate. We have given a free placement only in a few cases when we felt it was not fair on the client, but within ten years, we have had only four persons leaving within three months.

What is the most difficult talent to cater for?

It depends on whether you look at operators or suppliers. Suppliers in terms of slot game providers can be complicated; for instance mathematicians to develop the algorithms for the games are difficult to find. They do have a low churn since they are very loyal, but are hard to find. Many are non-EU nationals, and it takes a long time to get a visa for them. We’ve clearly got a skills shortage here and suppliers are starting to build satellite offices in other countries because of it.

What are the top five skills that are impossible to source in Malta at the moment?

Norwegian customer service agents are difficult. I think in Norway they make about €30,000 a year working for McDonalds. For them to take a €15,000 pay-cut to come to Malta and work in customer service is not an option. Scandinavia in general is hard, while Italians are probably the easiest. On the supplier side, you’ve got the mathematicians, designers and developers. A HTML5-game developer is ridiculously hard to find. If you find one, then you’ve also got to convince them to go from doing advanced video game design to designing a slot image. Among affiliates, there is a massive demand for PHP-developers. When headhunting candidates, we usually start with Malta, then look in other EU countries and then globally. On average, two or three out of five positions can be filled from within Malta.

How is Malta welcoming people who move here to take on positions?

Accommodation is actually the hard part, but it is relative. When you show someone a €1,000 penthouse, a person coming down from London will think ‘oh what a cheap penthouse’, while someone from rural Poland will fall off their chair. The island offers a little bit of everything. Therefore, I don’t think anyone will arrive and feel completely lost. Obviously, we stay in touch with them or meet them on the day of arrival. We have got a network of people in real estate and usually give them choices.

Dean Nicholls is the Founder and CEO at iGaming Elite. He is also the Founder and CEO of Yellow Brick Investments, assisting start-ups with services such as management training, launch capital and expertise. 

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