EMPLOYMENT growth in the whole of 2015 was smaller than the gain made in just a quarter the year before. Total employment rose 31,800 last year, a 12-year low, according to preliminary data released by the Ministry of Manpower on Thursday.
The number was 130,100 in 2014, or an average 32,525 a quarter.
MOM said in a report that the increase in that year was "exceptional".
Employment generated picked up by 12,600 in the third quarter and 15,500 in the fourth quarter of last year, but the report pointed out that this was due to temporary extra hands hired to cope with year-end festive demand.
Employment growth for the full year was almost flat (0.9 per cent), thanks to a soft economy and tighter supply of foreign workers. The moderation in growth was broad-based across sectors.
"Employment declines in manufacturing, retail trade, real estate services and wholesale trade were offset by employment growth in most sectors, led by community, social and personal services, administrative and support services, and construction and professional services," the report said.
Virtually all of the job growth (31,600) in 2015 came from foreign manpower, while the employment gain among locals was flat.
Kit Wei Zheng, an economist at Citigroup, said that this pointed to the "persistence of a two-tiered job market, with continued demand for low-wage jobs dominated by foreigners, contrasting with weaker demand for PMET (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) jobs dominated by citizens and PRs".
Still, the jobless rate for residents slipped to 2.9 per cent in December from 3 per cent in September , according to the report. The rate for citizens fell to 3 per cent from 3.1 per cent.
The total unemployment rate dipped to 1.9 per cent from 2 per cent in the same period. The economy remained in full employment - and the labour market was tight enough to push incomes higher. The nominal median monthly income from work of full-time employed citizens rose by 6.5 per cent over the year to S$3,798 in June 2015, or 7.0 per cent in real terms, taking into account negative inflation.
Yet for some observers, the overall picture of the labour market in 2015 wasn't pretty - and they don't see a recovery soon. Professional recruiter Kelly Services expects employers to be more cautious in hiring this year, as the economy remains weak.
OCBC Bank economist Selena Ling agreed. "Given that business sentiment surveys suggest less optimism about the first half of 2016 outlook, the labour market conditions may soften slightly from here."
Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say himself on Thursday reiterated that Singapore's economic restructuring and ageing population would ease job gains from a yearly 4 per cent average in 2010-2014 to 1-2 per cent in the next five years.
"Looking beyond that, this decline is likely to continue because our local workforce growth eventually will reach a negligible growth, if not stagnation, given that the baby boomer generation is entering retirement," he told reporters at a briefing. "The day will come when the local workforce growth will reach zero, stagnated."
Citigroup's Mr Kit said that while the headline unemployment rate fell more than expected, redundancies jumped from 3,460 workers in the third quarter to 4,200 workers in the final quarter - the highest since the recession in the second quarter of 2009.
The layoff number for the full year was 14,400, up from 12,930 in 2014 and also the highest since 2009.
MOM's report, which noted that redundancies have been creeping up since 2010, said that the increase was due to "on-going business restructuring".
Mr Kit said that the spike in layoffs was "a clearer sign of cyclical softening on balance, with resident-citizen unemployment likely (to be) higher if not for more locals staying outside the labour force".
According to OCBC's Ms Ling, the steady jobless rates for residents and citizens "in the face of rising redundancies suggest that they have largely been able to transit to other jobs and/or other growth industries".