EMPLOYMENT growth for Singaporeans and permanent residents last year was so abysmal that a total of 12 MPs raised questions on the subject in Parliament on Monday.
As part of his response, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said the government will revamp the jobs bank - set up to give fair consideration to Singaporean job candidates - into a portal that will offer more functions and facilitate career planning.
"We will transform the National Jobs Bank into a one-stop and non-stop online marketplace. Jobseekers will be able to explore new career opportunities and conduct job searches anytime, anywhere without having to wait for the next job fair," Mr Lim said. No launch date has been set for the new portal.
Mr Lim also told the House that the Manpower Ministry (MOM) and its agencies have stepped up job matching and career services.
While economists lauded the government's efforts in facilitating the matching of jobseekers and vacancies, they also urged a deeper rethink on how Singapore's labour force can be structured as new realities emerge.
Recent reports by MOM showed that growth in local employment of Singaporean and PRs was only at 700 for the whole year of 2015. Taking in the 200 net loss in the first half of 2016, there was only an increase of 500 in the past 18 months.
This stands in stark contrast to the gains seen in recent years. The net increases for 2014 was 96,000, the year before 82,900, and 2012 was 58,700.
On the new portal, Mr Lim said that it can act as a career counsellor to jobseekers. Through the Skills Framework function, it will help jobseekers understand what are the career paths, occupations, skill requirements and training programmes available to them in every major sector.
Though the revamp can also address underemployment issues, ANZ economist Ng Weiwen said: "I see it as a band-aid measure. Ultimately, it's a resource allocation issue in the labour market."
Nomura economist Brian Tan added: "This certainly helps in reducing jobs mismatch as it makes it clearer to people where the job vacancies are, what they require. But at the end of the day it really is up to the worker who decides what jobs he wants to take up. This will require big mindset changes."
Mr Lim attributed the plunge in net local employment to cyclical and structural factors.
On the cyclical front, more people left employment after their jobs were terminated, completed their contracts or casual employment. More also left to pursue further studies and upgrading, he said.
But the more fundamental issue is the shift in demographics.
The size of the youngest working demographic group of ages 15 to 24 years old entering the labour force peaked in 2013, Mr Lim noted. The number of retirees is also on the rise.
Should demographic trends go on, "we will see a continued slowdown of local labour force growth, towards negligible levels, or even stagnation by the mid-2020s", said Mr Lim.
Government policies have helped boost employment in recent years.
The re-employment legislation came into effect in 2012, allowing workers to retire when they turn 65. This will be raised to 67 next year. The Special Employment Credit was also introduced in 2012 to help boost employment for older workers.
These initiatives have helped attract untapped potential workers into the labour market. Singapore's labour force participation rate, or the proportion of the population eligible and want to participate in the workforce, is now at 83.1 per cent.
But this high percentage also means there isn't much more room to raise the percentage.
On top of that, Singapore is scrutinising its foreign labour initiatives, which might result in controlled flows of external sources of labour.
Singapore's policy on foreign manpower must thus be "well-balanced", said Mr Lim. If Singapore relies too much on them, wages will be suppressed, productivity will be low. Conversely, closing the doors on foreigners will also mean that economic growth will be slow amidst current demographic trends.
The economic impact from this stagnation will be felt if productivity growth is low and foreign labour is curbed. When these three drag on, "our economy will eventually stagnate too", Mr Lim said. "Our future norm should be 2 to 3 per cent of quality growth, not 1 to 2 per cent of low growth," he added.
Thus, economists see the new online portal as a new addition to the arsenal of policy options the government has already introduced to boost employment.
But ANZ's Mr Ng also urged the government to think more about how tertiary students and workers can be equipped with the right sets of skills in a fast-changing labour market landscape. "It's very hard to stay ahead of the curve. So, what skills are students picking up before they graduate? How quickly can workers change their skillsets?" he mused.