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THE jobs market picture painted by the latest official report released on Monday isn't as bleak as the sluggish economy would otherwise suggest. But the tone of the Ministry of Manpower's final Labour Market Report, First Quarter 2016 remains cautious - and looked at from a longer view, it has reasons to be.
Already, the latest survey report by ManpowerGroup Singapore, also released on Monday, points to a "more conservative" pace of hirings in the next three months, with hiring prospects at their weakest since the 2009 recession.
But for now, the Labour Market report says that overall unemployment in March stayed unchanged from December, at a seasonally-adjusted 1.9 per cent quarter-on-quarter - a full-employment situation, according to economists. For residents (citizens and permanent residents), the jobless rate slipped to 2.7 per cent from 2.9 per cent (quarter-on-quarter).
Job openings still outnumber job seekers. And it helps also that redundancies also eased, falling to 4,710 (4,600 was the preliminary figure) from 5,370 in the final quarter of 2015
Total employment jumped 13,000, against 11,400 in the preliminary report released in April and a drop of 6,100 from a year ago, according to the MOM report.
Yet, the report indicated that the unemployment rate for residents aged 30 and over, especially those 50 and over, rose - with the rate for the 50 and over increasing to 2.2 per cent year on year from 1.8 per cent.
"This is the fourth consecutive quarter of increase, bringing the average rate of the last four quarters to 2.5 per cent, up from 2.1 per cent a year ago," the report says.
The unemployment rate dipped for younger residents aged below 30, but this was because of a lower labour force participation rate among youths aged 15 to 24.
The long-term unemployment rate also jumped for most education and age groups, with the overall figure inching up from 0.5 per cent in March 2015 to 0.7 per cent in March 2016.
"The share of long-term unemployed residents among unemployed residents also rose from 21 per cent in March 2015 to 26 per cent in March 2016, the highest of the March periods since 2005," the report says.
Total employment growth in the first three months of the year, while higher than first thought and a reversal of the drop a year ago, was smaller than the seasonal high growth of 16,100 in the final quarter of last year.
The ministry indicated in a press release that the employment growth was "significantly lower than in 2013 and 2014".
Services (13,200) were the main driver of the January-March employment growth. Industries such as retail trade (-700) and accommodation (-400) saw declines in employment.
"While the declines were less pronounced than the same quarter a year ago, firms remained less optimistic of hiring and business conditions," the report says.
The manufacturing sector, which lost 1,900 jobs, extended its contraction for a sixth straight quarter. The report expects manufacturing to reduce hiring in the second quarter, in particular the transport and precision engineering and general manufacturing segments.
The seasonally adjusted job vaccancies, while execeeding the jobless number, continued to fall, to 50,000 in March 2016 from 53,900 in December 2015.
This brought the ratio of job openings to unemployed in March down to 103 openings per 100 job seekers, from 112 in December 2015 and 139 in March 2015.
The ratio is the lowest since June 2012, the report says.
Also, only 46 per cent of the workers laid off in the fourth quarter last year were re-employed by March this year - the lowest since June 2009. This was the second straight quarterly drop.
Redundancies in March, though down from the previous quarter, were still higher than the preliminary estimate and from a year ago (3,500), according to the report. It's also the highest first-quarter redundancies since 2009.
Professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), who accounted for a bigger chunk of the employed, made up 71 per cent of the redundancies.
"We suspect broad-based weakness in demand for resident PMET jobs is probably of greater concern to policymakers," says Kit Wei Zheng, an economist at Citigroup.
"Should retrenchments among local PMETs continue to rise, we would not be surprised to see off-Budget measures in the form of further targeted wage subsidies for PMETs, or even tightened eligibility criteria for Employment Pass holders."
An earlier report in paragraph 9 referred to "longer-term unemployment ..." when it should have been "long-term unemployment .." and "March 2017" when it should have been "March 2016". Also, in paragraph 19, "the sixth straight quarterly drop" should have been "second straight quarterly drop". The article has been amended to reflect this.