Saturday, 17 September 2016

Singapore's job crunch: Layoffs and unemployment up in Q2 2016 - Manpower Ministry

Layoffs, jobless rates rise amid sluggish economy
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 16 Sep 2016

Reflecting slowing economic conditions, workers here faced a gloomy labour market in the second quarter of the year, with unemployment and layoffs rising.

Job vacancies, which have been falling since last year, went below the number of job seekers for the first time since 2012.

These sobering figures were released by the Manpower Ministry yesterday.

The unemployment rate rose to 2.1 per cent in June from 1.9 per cent in March.

Among Singaporeans, the rate rose to 3.1 per cent from 2.6 per cent in the same period. When combined with the data for permanent residents, the rate went to 3 per cent from 2.7 per cent.

These rates are adjusted for such seasonal factors as Chinese New Year and school holidays.

Looking at the first six months of the year, more workers were asked to go than in the same period last year.

In all, 9,510 workers were retrenched or had their contracts aborted, a new peak since the global financial crisis in 2009.

One bright spot was that labour productivity rose by 0.8 per cent in the first half of the year compared with the same period last year.

At the same time, employment growth was greater.

The ministry said it expects labour demand to stay modest for the rest of the year and for layoffs to rise in sectors with weak external demand and in those undergoing restructuring.

More jobless and fewer openings at firms
Overall unemployment rate rose to 2.1 per cent in June after taking into account seasonal factors
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 16 Sep 2016

The slowing economy has cast a pall over the labour market, with more people losing their jobs and companies having fewer job openings in the second quarter of this year compared with the first quarter.

For the first time in four years, there were also fewer vacancies than job seekers, according to the Ministry of Manpower's figures released yesterday.

This means workers have to moderate their expectations of pay and job prospects and be prudent in spending, said DBS economist Irvin Seah.

"The writing is on the wall. We'll continue to see a softening in the labour market because of further risks to growth," he added.

The overall unemployment rate rose to 2.1 per cent in June this year after taking into account seasonal factors such as Chinese New Year and the school holidays.

The seasonally adjusted rate was 1.9 per cent in March.

For Singaporeans, unemployment rose to 3.1 per cent in June, from 2.6 per cent in March.

When citizens and permanent residents are combined, the rate climbed to 3 per cent from 2.7 per cent in the same period.

Job vacancies, which have been falling steadily since last year, hit 49,400 in June.

As a result, the ratio of job openings to jobless people fell below one for the first time since June 2012.

"It may be increasingly difficult to characterise the job market as tight," said Citi economist Kit Wei Zheng, adding that wage growth could slow.

The ministry, in a separate statement, gave total employment growth in the first six months of this year, saying it picked up against the same period last year despite manufacturing continuing to shed workers.

But local employment dipped by 200 - far fewer than the 8,900 drop in the first half of last year.

The decline can be attributed to both structural and cyclical factors, said the ministry.

"Structurally, growth of the local working-age population is slowing, due to smaller cohorts of younger locals entering the workforce, and more 'baby boomers' retiring... local employment growth since 2015 has been further weighed down by cyclical weakness in the economy due to the subdued global economic conditions," it said.

Meanwhile, a net 11,800 foreign employees were added in the first half of the year, excluding foreign domestic workers.

The bulk of them, or 9,300, were work permit holders, many of whom found work in the food and beverage as well as the administrative and support service industries.

This brought the total number of people working in Singapore to 3,673,400 in June.

National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Cham Hui Fong said the way to ensure sustainable employment growth is to raise productivity by redesigning jobs or re-skilling.

Courses in compliance and regulatory areas, as well as IT and coding skills, were recommended by Mr Foo See Yang, vice-president and country general manager for recruiter Kelly Services Singapore.

There could also be a shortage of workers in sectors catering to domestic demand, such as community, social and personal services, and accommodation and food services, said the ministry.

"Businesses will need to press on with job redesign and restructuring to become more manpower-lean, as the Government continues to regulate foreign manpower inflow at a moderated pace," it added.

Additional reporting by Olivia Ho

Tough times ahead but Singapore workers to get more help
Ministers reassure workers but also stress that they have to adapt and go for training
By Olivia Ho and Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 17 Sep 2016

Singaporeans need to brace themselves for trying times, as global economic headwinds and restructuring pains at home displace more workers, two ministers said yesterday.

But Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing, who is also the labour chief, reassured workers that more is being done to match them to better jobs, provided they themselves step up and go for training.

They were responding to the dismal figures in Thursday's labour market report, which show rising unemployment and layoffs in the first half of the year reaching a seven-year high. Job vacancies also dropped below the number of job seekers for the first time since 2012.

Mr Chan, who is secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), told reporters at a human resource dialogue that the next six to 12 months would be challenging, owing to the global slowdown and disruptive forces in the domestic economy.

Mr Lim, speaking to reporters at a career fair at the Devan Nair Institute, said his ministry is prepared for the worst. As industries transform swiftly, the pace of retrenchment may quicken, he said.

But he stressed that Singapore cannot stop its restructuring efforts. Otherwise, it will continue to depend heavily on foreign labour and be unable to create the types of quality careers Singaporeans want.

The major problem in the labour market, however, is job mismatch.

Mr Lim hopes the Singapore Workforce Development Agency's online career fair, its first, can better connect job seekers with 51 employers offering 500 vacancies.

As for NTUC, Mr Chan said it not only plans to train displaced workers to match them with the appropriate jobs, but it also wants to reach out to workers whose jobs may be in danger in time to come.

"We need to do this ahead of time, to identify their skill set that can be transferred to new job opportunities," he said.

This, he said, is the most challenging task. "We are all humans.When we are doing our job, it is very difficult to think of the next job we may need to look for," he added,

NTUC will work with government agencies, companies and industry bodies to look at areas of growth and identify, at least six months in advance, where new jobs may be created. "All of us would like to go for training if there's a clear job prospect," he said. But if people cannot make informed choices about what to train in, generic calls to upgrade will be ineffective, he added.

Workers, too, need to do their part. Said Mr Lim: "Our efforts aren't enough. We need job seekers to step forward to join the platform we are creating and, more importantly, be prepared to adapt."

Mr Chan encouraged workers to always bear in mind that their jobs could become obsolete at any moment. "We don't want any of our workers to be complacent, to think their current skill set, their current jobs, will last for ever."

Career fair goes virtual to reach more white-collar job seekers
By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, 17 Sep 2016

As unemployment and layoffs continue to rise, the Government is exploring how to do more with the online job hunt at its first virtual career fair for white-collar job seekers.

The Adapt and Grow Virtual Career Fair, which started last Wednesday, was midway through when the Manpower Ministry released its sobering labour market report on Thursday.

The two-week virtual fair by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) is meant to help job seekers expand their network and connect online with 51 potential employers.

These companies, in sectors such as infocommunications and technology, aerospace and biomedical sciences, have 500 vacancies with a median salary of $4,500 a month.

Close to 400 Web chats, which are conducted on an online portal, have been lined up for job seekers with either potential employers or career coaches.

While the virtual fair is running until next Wednesday, a physical fair was held yesterday afternoon at the Devan Nair Institute for Employment and Employability in Jurong for job seekers who prefer to meet employers in person.

Besides getting to speak to more than 25 employers, they could also attend motivational workshops on topics such as interview preparation and personal grooming.

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, who was at the event, said the virtual fair was a cheaper and faster way to match job seekers - especially professionals, managers, executives and technicians - with available jobs.

He said that since the virtual fair started, about 2,000 people have signed up and 300 of them have submitted 1,000 applications through the platform.

While the WDA will continue to hold physical job fairs for rank-and- file workers, Mr Lim said that virtual fairs, which are not constrained by capacity, are more likely to attract employers with quality jobs.

Financial technology start-up Trinity Consulting Services took part, with five openings for banking and technology jobs, and has since shortlisted three applicants.

"It has been very difficult to find local candidates as many people would rather go for multinational corporations," said its director Vivilian William, 37, who found the virtual fair's chatroom system convenient for sifting through applicants.

Mr Yeo Ying Yong said he used the virtual portal but decided to attend the physical fair to meet employers in person, as not many were online when he was. He has applied for jobs in six organisations.

The 33-year-old, who quit his job as a Web applications consultant last month, suggested more resources for the online portal, including mock technical tests that IT professionals like him must take as part of the application process.

43-year-old manager yet to find work, 4 months on
By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, 16 Sep 2016

In the four months since she lost her job, Ms Shabnam Manan has applied to more than 700 organisations, including many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Four called her for interviews but she has yet to land a job. The 43- year-old, who was a manager in an international coaching firm, is among a growing pool of workers who were retrenched or had contracts aborted in the first half of this year.

The number of these redundant workers is at a seven-year high, the worst since the 2009 recession, according to Ministry of Manpower figures released yesterday.

A total of 9,510 workers were made redundant in the first half of this year, compared with 6,750 in the same period last year.

In the second quarter of this year, about 4,800 workers were laid off, 48 per cent more than the same period last year. Most, or 62 per cent, were in services.

Economist Selena Ling of OCBC Bank attributed the situation to companies restructuring and turning to automation to replace lower-wage workers. Also, price and cost pressures in such beleaguered sectors as oil and gas as well as manufacturing made matters worse, she added.

It is also getting more difficult for job seekers to find new work. The re-entry rate in the first half of the year plunged to a seven-year low.

Worst off are professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), whose re-entry rates fell from 43 per cent in March to 40 per cent in June. PMETs and those aged 40 or older, like Ms Manan, also form the majority of those laid off.

She was asked to go in May, in a "mutual decision". She said: "My employers thought I was not fitting in and I thought I needed more room to grow. I guess it was a mismatch."

She believes her age and lack of a university degree may have caused employers to overlook her 17 years of work experience. Her highest qualification is A-level education.

Ms Manan, who is divorced, is the breadwinner of her family, supporting her 16-year-old son and mother in her 80s. "I'm really worried about how we are going to move forward," she said, adding that she has applied to a Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) training mid-career professionals to switch industries.

ManpowerGroup Singapore country manager Linda Teo noted that many food and beverage outlets are closing down because of poor business or lack of manpower.

Labour MP Patrick Tay, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, sees layoffs persisting in the months ahead, especially for PMETs. He urged job seekers to tap schemes like SkillsFuture and the PCPs. "Workers must stay ready, relevant and resilient."

Parliament: MOM to bring forward and extend scope of retrenchment survey
By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, 14 Sep 2016

Singapore's slowing economy has prompted the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to bring forward to this year a retrenchment survey that was scheduled for next year.

The scope of the survey, held every four years, has been widened as well to include smaller companies employing between 10 and 24 workers, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say in Parliament yesterday.

Previously, only companies with at least 25 workers were polled.

Mr Lim also said, in his reply to Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC), that nine out of 10 companies pay retrenchment benefits.

Citing the latest retrenchment survey done in 2013, Mr Lim said 90 per cent of companies that retrenched workers in 2012 paid them benefits.

Of these, 68 per cent were in the manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, and financial and insurance service sectors.

And 80 per cent of the companies that gave retrenchment benefits were non-unionised, while two-thirds were small and medium-sized enterprises.

The survey also showed the norm is to pay retrenchment benefits of between two weeks and one month of salary for each year of service.

Mr Lim noted that the Employment Act does not mandate the payment of retrenchment benefits, and the amount paid is left to the employer's discretion.

But the "vast majority of employers with 25 or more employees do pay retrenchment benefits commensurate with the industry norm", he said.

Mr Lim also said workers who are retrenched unfairly can turn to his ministry or their unions for help.

Those who are not union members can seek recourse in the civil courts, or the Employment Claims Tribunal which will be set up in April next year.

Mr Tay also urged the ministry to pay more attention to cases of "disguised retrenchments", in which companies quietly lay off people in small numbers with a "golden handshake" or by making it seem the workers had resigned voluntarily.

Singapore's job crunch: Time to learn new skills and update that CV?

For decades, Singapore workers had it good with jobs aplenty. But now, job seekers exceed vacancies. However, what might be the 'new normal' offers new opportunities too, Insight finds.
By Olivia Ho, The Sunday Times, 25 Sep 2016

When Ministry of Manpower (MOM) figures earlier this month showed the number of job openings in Singapore had fallen below the number of job seekers for the first time in four years, workers like Bernadette Lee were taken aback.

"I was shocked," said the 56-year- old. "It's not good news. It's been a long time since I've heard something like this."

She left her job as a social worker last month to seek a better work-life balance, but worries now that her job hunt might be more difficult than she had expected.

"I have to lower my expectations. I was a manager but now I may have to settle for an executive position," she said.

Casting a shadow over the labour market in recent months were economic indicators reflecting the slowing economy. One of the most recent was the MOM's figures showing that unemployment among citizens and permanent residents rose to 3 per cent in the second quarter of the year, from 2.7 per cent in the previous quarter.

These rates, which are adjusted for seasonal factors such as Chinese New Year and school holidays, have not gone above 3 per cent since 2010.

Layoffs also reached a seven-year peak. The number of workers who were retrenched or had their contracts aborted in the first half of the year hit its highest level since the global financial crisis in 2009.

Furthermore, the rate of workers re-entering employment has plummeted to its lowest since then.

Job growth has slowed and, for the first time in four years, job seekers outnumber job vacancies, which have been falling since last year.

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said at a career fair last Friday he hopes this is not so much a downward trend as a hump in the road that Singapore has to push itself over, to get to the greener pastures of productivity-driven growth.

He said: "As we go through this transition, there will be disruptions, there will be retrenchments, there will be downsizing in some sectors."

Creating more jobs is only part of the solution, he added. "If we are not careful, unemployment might go up, not because we don't have enough jobs but because there is a mismatch between jobs and skills. Then we would have structural unemployment, which is harder to solve."

But it is not all doom and gloom. The Government, businesses, job hunters and even those who are still in employment are being pro-active in finding strategies to help them work things out in the changing work environment, as the stories in this package show.


With the global economy never truly recovering from the 2009 crisis, growth has been patchy in export hub Singapore. And now, recent global developments have turned up the heat.

National University of Singapore associate professor of economics Liu Haoming said: "Given the uncertainty introduced by the United States election, Britain's exit from the European Union and the slowdown in the Chinese economy, firms will be very cautious about their hiring."

He added: "Whether this trend will continue into the next year will depend on what happens in the rest of the world, particularly in the US and China.

"If (US Democratic Party candidate Hillary) Clinton wins the election, it will likely increase people's confidence about the US economy, which should have a positive impact on Singapore's economy."

Global economic headwinds aside, the nationwide productivity drive has required companies to restructure which, in turn, has forced them to shed jobs.

Ms Linda Teo, country manager of recruitment company ManpowerGroup Singapore, said the rise in redundancies, especially in the labour-intensive services sector, has been exacerbated by the slowing economy and softening consumer demand.

"Companies are either operating on leaner headcounts to contain costs or have replaced certain functions with technology," she added.

A total of 9,510 workers were made redundant in the first half of this year, compared with 6,750 in the same period last year.

The MOM was concerned enough to bring forward to this year a retrenchment survey due next year. The survey, which takes place every four years, will widen its scope to cover smaller firms employing between 10 and 24 workers.

But what is setting alarm bells ringing now could very well be Singapore's new normal, said SIM University labour economist Walter Theseira.

"There may be no quick rebound as there was from the 2009 global financial crisis," he said. "We are entering what is likely to be a prolonged period of low to moderate growth - a situation that Singapore has never experienced before, but which is normal for most developed economies."

Economist Selena Ling from OCBC Bank said the unemployment rate could hover above 3 per cent for the next two years or so.

Should firms still be pushed to restructure amid such uncertainty? "When it comes to economic restructuring, there is never a good time," said Ms Ling.

"If you do it when times are good, you'll have businesses asking why you're changing things while everything is going well. When times are bad, see it as a chance to put your house in order while things are quiet. The competition is always nipping at your heels."


In fact, an unemployment rate of 3 per cent would be considered something to cheer about for almost any other developed country.

Dr Theseira said that while things might look dire compared to what Singaporeans are used to, the country is - relatively speaking - not that badly off.

"Many advanced economies would love to have our present unemployment rates, which would be considered to be unusually low by their standards."

Economists and labour MPs alike said it is too soon to characterise the labour market as slackening.

Prof Liu said: "The decline in employment and job openings happened only in the second quarter. After four quarters of almost continuous growth in employment across all industries, it is still too early to say the tight labour market is over."

National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay cited numbers to show there are jobs available, but a mismatch of skills has prevented them from being filled.

"For example, we hear there are more than 15,000 vacancies in the tech and IT sector. But the problem is, do we have enough experienced persons available... to fill those jobs?"

The Government has been rolling out scheme after scheme to tackle this mismatch, from a new virtual career fair in the last two weeks to better connect employers and job seekers online, to plans to transform entire industries.

Last Friday, MOM's Mr Lim launched two new career programmes for the hotel sector, which employs 35,000 people.

One is a new skills framework under the nationwide SkillsFuture initiative. It is a structured guide to help workers chart their career progression and identify specific skills to get jobs they want.

The other is the Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) for Professional Executives, to ease the transition for mid-career professionals between multiple industries. It starts for the hotel industry next month.

NTUC's Mr Tay, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, said the lower birth rates of the past two decades meant there will be fewer new entrants to the workforce, as the baby boomer generation go into retirement. This will keep the labour market tight.

But this is scant consolation for workers who are used to almost full employment but must now worry about their rice bowl.

From a young age, Singaporeans are told to study hard and earn tertiary qualifications to get a good, white-collar job which they can keep until retirement. But good qualifications are no longer a guarantee of employment in a world disrupted by technological change.

Speaking to global business and political leaders at the Singapore Summit recently, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam called for students to be put on "paths of advancement" for skills in dealing with real-world situations.

"The whole mantra of college education - of trying to make it as easy as possible for everyone to get a college education - is a big mistake," he said.

Indeed, as to what opportunities are emerging on the job landscape, some areas workers should look at are compliance and financial technology, said Mr Foo See Yang, vice- president and country manager for recruitment company Kelly Services Singapore.

He said another paradigm shift arising from the economic situation is a growing interest in contract and freelance work.

From 2011 to last year, Kelly saw a 70 per cent increase in placements of high-end contract jobs with monthly salaries of more than $10,000. "Contract work can be a long-term career option with similar remuneration rewards as full-time employment," he said.

Offering advice for workers, ManpowerGroup's Ms Teo said: "In today's ever-changing job environment, career longevity, and not job security, is more crucial. The reality of today's work environment is that no one is irreplaceable."

Skill gap a big problem for fresh grads

By Olivia Ho, The Sunday Times, 25 Sep 2016

When she finished her university studies in July, Ms Elizabeth Boon made a splash online with her unorthodox graduation photo shoot.

The National University of Singapore communications graduate, 24, eschewed hat-tossing euphoria in favour of bleak photos styled to match the economic outlook.

In them, she poses listlessly in the Central Business District with a cardboard sign that implores: "Hire me leh."

The controversial photos earned her brickbats online, but also struck a chord with many other fresh graduates leaving the bubble of tertiary education for the sometimes choppy waters of the job market.

Official figures released earlier this month show that job vacancies continue to fall, as the number of job seekers outstrips the number of openings for the first time since June 2012.

The rise in unemployment hit resident degree-holders the hardest. Their unemployment rate rose to 4.3 per cent in June, from 3.5 per cent in the same period last year - the highest level since 2009.

Graduates will find it harder to recoup their investment, as the cost of a degree is likely to go up. Since 2010, tuition fees at local universities have increased every year for most undergraduate courses, largely because of rising operating costs.

Employers are also less keen to hire this year, according to a survey released last week by recruitment firm ManpowerGroup.

Of 646 companies polled in Singapore, nearly three in four said they had no plans to increase headcount during the fourth quarter.

According to Glints, a career development portal for young people, a major problem is the growing skill gap between graduates and the jobs they are applying for.

Says Glints co-founder and chief executive Oswald Yeo: "For example, there's a huge demand for technology workers such as software engineers or digital marketers, but there isn't a big supply of these candidates coming out from universities or polytechnics."

When Glints itself hired an intern who was a marketing major from a local university, he proved ill-equipped to run social media campaigns because he had not been taught how to.

"We had to teach him all over again," says Mr Yeo.

He advises graduates to try to acquire such skills through internships or part-time opportunities.

Otherwise, he says, Singapore could see a growing trend of under-employment, with young job seekers ending up in roles that they are over-qualified for, simply because they lack the specific skills that employers want.

And what of Ms Boon? She has yet to be hired for a permanent position, but she has made her peace with that.

She now freelances as an emcee, writer and actress, raking in $5,000 in a good month but earning less than $1,000 in a bad one.

"There are dry spells when I have to watch my spending," she says.

"If my friends ask me to go out for drinks, I'll join them but I won't drink.

"I'm lucky because I don't have financial commitments for the near future, and my family does not rely on me to support them. But that's not the case for many of us."

For other graduates, freelancing remains a stop-gap measure while they hold out for permanent positions. Nanyang Technological University journalism graduate Kenji Kwok, 25, is making do with wedding and documentary photography while he waits to hear from employers.

He wants to do communications in the civil service and has applied for four positions since April, but his efforts have yet to bear fruit.

"I enjoy photography, but it's not steady," he says. "People don't suddenly decide they're going to get married next month. Demand can be quite up in the air."

He and his girlfriend recently put down a five-figure deposit for a build-to-order flat, which is increasing the pressure on him to secure a steady income.

"I have mixed feelings about the bad news (regarding the economy)," he says. "At least I'm not the only one in this situation, but it also means the competition is stiffer."


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