Is Singapore doing enough to keep up with the rapidly changing job market

Photo: Nicolas Lannuzel/CC BY-SA 2.0
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The world of work is changing. Employees chase a favourable work-life balance. Employers must be conscious of their responsibilities.

By John Pennington

The global labour market is changing fast. Employees change jobs frequently. Employers face challenges to keep and re-train employees.

Workforce development is now one of the government’s critical priority areas. Employees must keep learning and developing skills to keep up with technological developments. This generation of workers needs lifelong learning programmes. Employers must provide them.

“The millennials, more than other generations, understand the importance of intellectual sustainability through implementing life-long learning and practical skills,” explained Cindy Yeo, managing director of recruitment firm Citadel Search. “They are more prone to understand the future demands of the workforce and work towards obtaining skills which might be attractive to a potential employer.”

Singapore is working hard to keep its workforce competitive

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wants to boost the labour market. At the People’s Action Party convention, he stressed its importance to the economy. Lee outlined strategies for skills upgrading, job matching and job creation. He pledged to help businesses use their workforce more efficiently.

Several schemes are already in place. Singaporeans over the age of 25 can access a S$500 (US$371.6) SkillsFutureCredit subsidy towards courses. Working adults can attend classes at many institutions, including the National University of Singapore.

Professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) can access conversion programmes. They can train with companies who are not yet ready to recruit by joining the Attach and Train scheme. Logistics companies were the first to trial the programme earlier this year.

The government is supporting those who lose their jobs. Companies must report retrenchments to the Ministry of Manpower. If a firm retrenches more than five employees in six months, they must notify the ministry. The ministry, agencies and unions will then offer employment or training opportunities.

The government is also working hard to ensure people do not miss out. As Yeo explains, “Policies are being implemented to embrace the under-represented groups such as people with disabilities, migrants, and back-to-work-mums. Locally, we can see programs such as SG Enable and Work Trials’ Back-to-work-Mums being implemented to encourage employers to hire people with disabilities and back-to-work-mums respectively through cost defraying and mitigating the risks of hiring under-represented groups.”

The government is making progress but needs employees’ help

The government’s efforts appear to be working. Unemployment figures are down from 2.2% at the start of the year to 2.1%. Unemployment among PMETs is also down. It dropped to 3% from 3.1% last year. More workers took part in the “Adapt And Grow” initiative. More workers are converting skills and thus giving themselves more opportunities.

Source: Trading Economics

There is only so much the government can do. “The government is encouraging the workforce to pick up new skills. However, people still need to help themselves and want to learn more as the economy is transforming and people need to transform with it,” argued Yeo.

Singapore has earned praise for its lifelong learning programmes

Not every country has been as quick to embrace lifelong learning. Some are yet to put in place successful strategies. In the US and the UK, for example, there has been a decrease in training. Others have fared better: Canada and Netherlands developed strong programmes for lifelong learning.

The EU set a target for its member states to have 15% of 25 to 64-year-olds involved in education or training by 2020. Last year, it reached an average of 10.8%, although some countries are well ahead of the target. Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland all passed 25%.

Singapore ranked first on a 2016 OECD survey of adult skills. Its young adults performed better than older workers. Singapore is doing well in some areas, but there is still room for improvement, warns Yeo.

“Singapore needs to encourage the importance of education, not just traditional education – but also ensure that SkillsFuture offers practical future-ready skills,” she advised. “This programme, as well as educational institutions, can consider pairing up with some private institutions that teach hands-on skills such as UI/UX design, digital marketing, blockchain technology, and so on.”

There is cautious optimism as the labour market recovers

In Singapore, the labour market is recovering. It is a slow process. Unemployment is falling and so are retrenchments. Some experts predict that construction demand will increase and boost the labour market.

Others are sceptical. “At least for next year, we are not terribly gung-ho about the strength of the economy and wages,” said economist Brian Tan. He added that the employment situation is “not as strong as it should be”.

Yeo shares his concerns, claiming it would be best to temper optimism with reality. “We do see that the economy is highly fuelled by manufacturing and is being lifted by the strong global demand for semiconductors and related equipment,” she confirmed. “Though this should theoretically mean great things for the labour market, the data is showing the total employment level fell to 2.2% from April to June 2017.”

Employers forecast they will take on additional employees in the final quarter. Singapore’s Net Employment Outlook is higher than it has been for two years at +11%. “The rise in Net Employment Outlook might be attributed to employer confidence bolstered by Singapore’s recent economic growth, which grew by 2.7% in the first half of 2017,” analysed Linda Teo, country manager of ManPowerGroup Singapore.

Singapore needs to challenge the norm to make progress

All parties need to work together to keep Singapore competitive on a global scale. The government is doing what it can to create policies and form strategies. Companies are working hard to provide relevant lifelong learning and training programmes. Employees need to step up as we move towards a more automated environment.

“Singapore needs to keep moving with their attempts to remain competitive – keeping an eye on countries that are progressing faster than us others and taking over the world,” advised Yeo.

She also wants to see a shift in mentality on the part of employees as well. “Take risks, don’t let the kiasu mindset from being different prevent us from challenging the norms. Sometimes taking risks could mean losing the game, but it is better to lose the game, get some valuable lessons, reinvent ourselves, and win the war.”

Playing it safe is no longer an option.