Sunday, 3 November 2013

PMEs' best protection - the ability to adapt

They should focus on sharpening their edge and updating their skills
By Lydia Lim, The Straits Times, 2 Nov 2013

A FRIEND of mine works in the office of a foreign bank here.

Her boss and many of her colleagues are Indian nationals.

At meetings, she finds herself struggling to keep up with their speedy, mental number crunching and she has to rely on a financial calculator to get her sums straight.

Another friend used to work for a large multinational IT firm.

If she got off the lift on certain floors of the office tower that housed her firm, she heard only Mandarin being spoken by the mainlanders who thronged the ranks of that particular department.

"I felt like I was in China," she complained.

I once found their experiences disconcerting. Were we Singaporeans in danger of becoming strangers in our own land?

And when more and more out-of-work, middle-aged white-collar workers said they were losing out to foreigners in their search for work, I was sympathetic.

But lately, since the Government announced its Fair Consideration Framework (FCF), my feelings have started to shift.

The FCF was unveiled last month after months of study and in response to allegations of discrimination against locals, to give Singaporean professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) a fair shot at jobs.

It means that from next August, all companies with more than 25 employees must advertise PME posts that pay less than $12,000 a month, at a national jobs bank.

The advertisement has to run for at least 14 days before the company can apply to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for an Employment Pass (EP), which it needs to hire a foreigner to fill the post. Those companies that fail to use the jobs bank will have their EP applications rejected.

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin stressed that the FCF was not a "hire Singaporeans first" policy and that "Singaporeans must still prove themselves able and competitive to take on the higher jobs that they aspire to".

So far, the FCF announcement has sparked debate over whether the new safeguards are sufficient to deter discrimination by employers.

At last week's Parliament sitting, MPs queried the exemptions granted to small companies and for jobs that pay over $12,000 a month.

And Nominated MP Eugene Tan asked if the FCF could be extended to the entire employment process, to include promotion, retirement and retrenchment decisions so as to keep discrimination at bay.

Then last Sunday, when Mr Tan Chuan-Jin visited Sembawang GRC, a woman asked him if multinational firms could exploit internal transfers as a way to circumvent the new FCF rules.

The thrust of such questions seems to be that the safeguards, which have yet to kick in, are already in need of beefing up.

What is not so clear is whether the minister's message about the larger context within which the FCF is being introduced, has sunk in.

I worry that many have failed to register the point that the FCF is about fair competition and not protection.

It is about creating a level playing field upon which local and foreign PMEs can compete fairly, on the basis of their skills, experience, attitude and other factors that have a bearing on their suitability for the jobs on offer.

It is not about tilting the playing field in favour of Singaporeans, nor about keeping out foreigners with the skills and talents companies need.

In Parliament last week, Acting Minister Tan gave an early warning of selective hearing on the part of some Singaporeans on this issue, when he recounted complaints about alleged discrimination that failed to check out.

"Some are spurred on because of personal issues. They may lose a job. They may lose out on a promotion. They're disgruntled. An investigation shows that there are not sufficient grounds," Mr Tan told the House.

"Others would raise complaints but without backing them up. When we want to follow up, they don't want to identify themselves and there's not enough information to actually follow through," he added.

It would be a tragedy if Singaporeans start to cling to the FCF as they would to a security blanket, and allow its introduction to lull them into a false sense of comfort.

For it is unrealistic for citizens of a small, open city state to expect the Government to protect them from competition.

Any form of protection can at best shield local PMEs temporarily. If companies are prevented from hiring the best people they can find, regardless of nationality, they may well review their operations here and consider relocating.

Far better for Singaporean PMEs to focus instead on how to sharpen their edge and update their skills and know-how, to keep employers interested and eager to recruit and retain them.

It would also be a mistake to pin the blame for the growing ranks of unemployed, middle- aged PMEs on foreigners when the source of the problem is most likely not discrimination, but a mismatch in skills.

In August, the Manpower Ministry released data that showed unemployment rising in the second quarter of this year even as more jobs were created.

That was most likely due to structural unemployment, which afflicts many developed economies.

Labour chief Lim Swee Say warned that the mismatch between jobs created and the skills needed to do them, is harder to fix than the seasonal job churn in the labour market.

"Structural unemployment affects workers at all levels, including professionals, managers and executives," he said. "It doesn't matter whether you are young or old, rank and file or PMEs."

The Government has in place programmes to help affected workers upgrade their skills and match them with jobs.

It is also reviewing its Continuing Education and Training Masterplan to better anticipate future challenges.

Such ongoing adjustments to rapid change in the labour market are the new reality for governments, employers and workers alike.

PMEs are no exception.

Their best security blanket is not protectionism but their own ability to accept and adapt to change.

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