Friday, February 6, 2015

S'pore job market: Going beyond data to allay anxieties

FEB 6, 2015


THE Ministry of Manpower (MOM) recently released a report on vacancies in the Singapore job market for September last year. According to the report, the number of available jobs rose to 67,400, the highest level in six years.

But the data appears incongruous with the sentiments of Singaporeans regarding the job scene, as expressed in public discourse. Singaporeans contend that some of them have a hard time getting employment because job openings are being filled by foreigners.

What more can be done to make the Government and the people see eye to eye?

Data from MOM published in January this year showed an 8.9 per cent increase in the total number of unfilled positions, compared with results for September 2013.

When the vacancy pie is sliced up by occupation, posts for professionals, managers and executives made up 21.8 per cent (13,590 vacancies), while jobs for associate professionals and technicians accounted for nearly 19.2 per cent (12,000 vacancies).

Top openings in the professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMET) category included those for teaching professionals, management executives, sales and marketing managers, and registered and assistant nurses.

As expected, non-PMET jobs were the hardest to fill. Under this segment, vacancies included positions for waiters, cleaners, security guards and shop sales assistants. Non-PMET jobs made up more than half of the total vacancies, coming in at a whopping 57.2 per cent (35,690 openings).

According to the report, employers listed "unattractive pay, preference for a shorter work week, a physically strenuous job nature and shift work" as reasons that made it hard to find locals to fill job vacancies.

The report noted that vacancies were "available for all educational levels, with more for both ends of the educational spectrum. Specifically, jobs requiring at least primary or lower (14,720 or 24 per cent) and university degree qualifications (13,060 or 21 per cent) were the most in demand. There were also many openings requiring secondary (11,430 or 18 per cent), diploma and professional qualifications (11,400 or 18 per cent), lower secondary (6,280 or 10 per cent) and post-secondary qualifications (5,520 or 8.8 per cent)".

The data suggests that citizens from all walks of life should be able to secure employment - job opportunities are not limited to the highly educated, but are also available for the young seeking work while transitioning from secondary to tertiary education.

In fact, when summing up the state of the prevailing job market, MOM used the term "hard to fill" several times to describe vacancies. The term captures Singapore's tight labour market, where there are more jobs available than workers.

The figures paint a picture of many unfilled vacancies, but anecdotal accounts still abound of Singaporeans who cannot get the jobs they want. Why?

One reason could be that the problem does not lie in the availability of jobs. Rather, the issue could be that many of the positions open, especially non-PMET jobs, offer wages too low to cover high living costs in Singapore. This could explain why many non-PMET jobs remain unfilled.

Such jobs mostly pay $1,000 to $1,900 a month. If statistics about rosy job prospects do not match job-seekers' lived experience, how can the gap be bridged?

The answer has to lie beyond the release of hard data, in the realm of perceptions and feelings.

In July last year, the Government took steps to connect hiring companies with job seekers by launching Jobs Bank, a free service that facilitates online job matching between Singapore-registered companies and locals (citizens and permanent residents).

This is a positive move, providing job seekers with a one-stop portal. The many attractive positions listed on the portal should also be reassuring to job seekers. The 40 job categories include accounting, design, health care, real estate and telecommunications.

Registered individuals receive e-mail alerts about job openings based on their preferences. More publicity about the service and other efforts to promote it would help more Singaporeans make use of it.

In another positive move, the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF) was set up in 2013 to prevent discriminatory hiring practices against Singaporeans. Through the FCF, MOM has taken steps to address genuine employment grievances.

In December last year, the ministry announced that it had penalised a firm for replacing 13 Singaporeans with foreigners. As it reminded companies, it "expects all firms to consider Singaporeans fairly for jobs, based on merit".

In bridging the perception gap, citizens, too, have a role to play.

For example, they might want to post detailed accounts of their employment struggles on official platforms such as Reach, the Government's e-engagement platform launched in January 2009.

Giving real names and contact details instead of just making posts as a "Guest" or using aliases could pave the way for providing intervention and direct assistance to job seekers.

Members of the public can also take advantage of the FCF. After all, they are encouraged to report incidents of non-compliance to the FCF. More victims of unfair employment or recruitment practices should come out and file complaints so that more abusive companies can be punished.

Hopefully, this way, citizens will feel that the Government is truly addressing their employment grievances.

As long as anxieties related to employment exist, regardless of official reports indicating Singapore's low unemployment rate and rising job vacancies, there will be a need for creative measures to bridge the perception gap.

The writer is a senior analyst at the Centre of Excellence for National Security, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. This is adapted from an article that first appeared in RSIS Commentary.

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