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Where are the jobs?

With Singapore now in recession, we survey the labour market to map the way ahead for job seekers

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WHERE ARE THE JOBS? With Singapore now in recession, we survey the labour market to map the way ahead for job seekers.

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WHERE ARE THE JOBS? With Singapore now in recession, we survey the labour market to map the way ahead for job seekers.

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"We want to do our part to avoid having a 'lost' generation of young graduates in Singapore whose career prospects are jeopardised because they are unable to find jobs due to the pandemic." - Susan Cheong, DBS Bank's talent acquisition group head.

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"The skill needs of the companies may also have transformed due to digitalisation during the pandemic. Instead of simply reinstating the old jobs, former employees will probably need to acquire new skills to help them perform in their new roles." - Linda Teo, country manager, ManpowerGroup Singapore.

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"Overall, I think that the domestic labour market is still likely to soften further in Q3 2020 and possibly till Q4 2020 as well." - Selena Ling, head of treasury research and strategy at OCBC Bank.

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"What might make sense is for workers to acquire enough technical knowledge that they can take up a role in sales, management or support... Those kinds of positions would make use of the workers' existing general business skills and knowledge, rather than force them to start over at the bottom and compete against entry-level technical specialists." - Associate Professor Walter Theseira, Singapore University of Social Sciences.

AT Resorts World Singapore, one of the country's largest employers, the axe fell hard and fast this week.

The integrated resort operator announced a retrenchment exercise said to number in the thousands, as the coronavirus pandemic choked off business and revenue for its casino, hotel, theme park and retail operations in the last six months. News of the cuts came a day after Singapore announced that the gross domestic product (GDP) fell a record 12.6 per cent year-on-year in the second quarter, plunging the economy officially into recession.

Even before the GDP data was released, there were signs of deep contraction. More than 187,000 workers, mostly from sectors severely hit by the pandemic, had to go on no-pay leave or a shorter work week, or see their pay cut between March and June.

Aircraft engine-maker Rolls-Royce said last week that it would shed a quarter of its workforce here, cutting 240 jobs. And in the high-flying startup sector, companies from Grab and Gojek to Airbnb and Zilingo axed Singapore staff in recent months.

Total employment shrank by 25,600 in January-March, registering the largest quarterly contraction in total employment on record. It exceeds the 24,000 contraction seen in Q2 2003 during the peak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak.

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Jobs came sharply in focus in this month's General Election campaigning, and the government has spared no effort in working to save jobs. Wage support is covered till August, job fairs are up and running, and employers have taken to government platform mycareersfuture.sg to put up available positions. The government is also giving salary subsidies to companies that hire people who have been looking for a job for six months or more.

As of Thursday, mycareersfuture.sg listed about 30,000 job and traineeship posts available, with the largest number of openings in the information technology (IT) sector: 7,635. Engineering positions numbered 4,205, banking and finance, 1,906; the public and civil service sector, 1,840; and sales and retail, 1,775.

The positions most in demand on the portal - vacancies that employers are actively seeking to fill - are software developer, business analyst, restaurant manager, nurse and pre-primary education teacher. The most popular jobs - those that receive high numbers of applications - are project manager, business analyst, accountant, marketing executive and human resource executive.

While there is strong demand for the likes of business analysts, programmers, nurses and pre-school teachers, these jobs may not be easy to fill as some require specific skill sets and certification. Time and financial resources are required to learn or be retrained to do these jobs.

Nevertheless, there are traineeships on mycareersfuture.sg for fresh graduates and seasoned job seekers to acquire work experience and technical knowhow.

These opportunities are made available as part of the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package and are co-funded by the government. Of the close-to- 100,000 opportunities, more than 40,000 are job openings: 25,000 in the private sector and 15,000 in the public sector; up to 25,000 are traineeships, with the bulk for recent graduates and 4,000 of them for mid-career individuals to learn new skills; and 30,000 training places for job seekers to attend courses to acquire skills.

Now hiring

Among employers that are currently hiring in the downturn is DBS, Singapore's largest lender. Susan Cheong, DBS Bank's talent acquisition group head, says the bank has committed to hiring over 2,000 people in Singapore throughout the entire year, including more than 1,000 new roles for both fresh graduates and seasoned professionals.

Of the new roles created, 360 are for seasoned professionals in growth technology areas, while over 700 are for young job seekers across specialised talent development programmes and traineeships.

OCBC has also said that it plans to hire over 3,000 people in Singapore this year. Like DBS, it is scouting for tech staff as it rolls out digital solutions for customers and employees. UOB, meanwhile, says it has taken on the "highest number of trainees" within the industry, in the current intake for the Technology in Finance Immersion Programme (TFIP) which helps mid-career individuals looking for new tech roles in the financial services sector.

DBS's Ms Cheong says: "In line with DBS' ongoing digitalisation efforts, among the 1,000 new roles being created, more than one-third or over 360 jobs are for seasoned professionals in growth technology areas. They comprise more than 300 hires into the areas of UX/UI, data science, fraud detection compliance, as well as consumer and institutional banking technology.

"Additionally, DBS is looking to train and hire over 60 people in AI, cloud computing, full stack development and data analytics through a range of specialised talent development programmes, specially designed to help seasoned professionals kickstart a technology career in financial services."

DBS will offer 500 traineeships to recent and new graduates from universities, polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education. These traineeships typically last between six and 12 months, with the possibility of conversion to a permanent role. Hiring will run until the end of 2020, and the bank has received over a thousand applications to date, says Ms Cheong.

DBS is also looking to hire more than 200 recent and upcoming graduates into talent development programmes such as its graduate associate programmes and the Skill Enhancement Education and Development programme supported by the TechSkills Accelerator. These would include opportunities for fresh graduates to kick-start their banking career in technology roles such as development, DevOps, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Ms Cheong says: "While DBS is prudent in our outlook, as a key employer in Singapore, it seemed right to us to not just continue with hiring for business-as-usual activities but also to actively create new jobs where we can, so as to help more people tide through this difficult period. In particular, we want to do our part to avoid having a 'lost' generation of young graduates in Singapore whose career prospects are jeopardised because they are unable to find jobs due to the pandemic.

"That is why we are committed to not only protecting existing jobs by pledging that there would be no retrenchments as a result of Covid-19, but have gone a step further to create new employment opportunities above and beyond our hiring for business-as-usual activities."

OCBC and UOB have similarly pledged not to retrench any staff.

Singapore's biggest telco Singtel too has said it expects to recruit about 2,000 this year. These business, corporate and operations roles include 300 full-time positions for fresh graduates.

The outlook for hiring

In the first quarter, Ministry of Manpower statistics showed the sharpest decline in employment was seen in the food and beverage services, construction and retail trade sectors, and this outstripped employment gains in the public administration and education, professional services and financial services sector.

Preliminary numbers for Q2 will be released at the end of this month.

Maybank Kim Eng economist Chua Hak Bin forecast that job losses could be between 100,000 and 150,000 this year, with the unemployment rate peaking at 4-4.5 per cent.

An outlook survey by recruitment agency ManpowerGroup Singapore showed hiring activity is expected to recover gradually, with 66 per cent of Singapore employers polled expecting hiring levels to return to pre-pandemic levels within the next 12 months. Some 20 per cent estimate this will happen within three months, and 15 per cent believe it will take more than a year.

Slightly over half of the 266 employers polled expect no change or higher headcount during the July-September quarter vis-a-vis the present quarter. Specifically, 11 per cent forecast an increase in headcount, 46 per cent expected status quo and 38 per cent anticipated a decrease.

But employers in six of the seven sectors surveyed expected headcounts to decline during the coming quarter, and the hiring outlook was the weakest reported since the Great Financial Crisis in 2009.

The difference between the percentage of employers anticipating total employment to increase and that expecting to see a decrease in headcount in the next quarter, known as the net employment outlook, is -28 per cent on a seasonally adjusted basis for Q3. The corresponding figures for the first two quarters in 2009 were each about -40 per cent.

Among the seven sectors surveyed, the public administration and education sector still has modest hiring plans for the third quarter, as a result of ongoing government initiatives to stimulate hiring and upskilling.

Also, enterprises with fewer than 10 employees have a net positive outlook on hiring. Linda Teo, country manager at ManpowerGroup Singapore, says micro-sized firms face less competition in hiring the talent they require, as most companies have frozen non-essential hiring.

The way back

Still, it will not be an easy task rehiring those who have lost their jobs. Cuts will come across all sectors, but those businesses that are hardest hit, which will let go of the most people, will also be the slowest to rehire, pundits say.

ManpowerGroup Singapore's Ms Teo says that some jobs will be reinstated gradually, while the rest might have evolved into different roles, when the economy recovers. The roles and numbers of staff who would be reinstated is highly dependent on each business and the demand for its services or products.

This is because some companies may have increased the use of technology for certain tasks to reduce human contact during this period such as frontline staff, while others may have invested in digitalisation to streamline business operations.

Ms Teo adds: "The skill needs of the companies may also have transformed due to digitalisation during the pandemic. Instead of simply reinstating the old jobs, former employees will probably need to acquire new skills to help them perform in their new roles."

Associate Professor Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences expects the travel, meeting, and mass entertainment sectors to seriously lag behind the recovery of the rest of the economy.

Unless there is a strong resumption of travel, a good proportion of the jobs lost in hospitality, tourism, and some business services will not be coming back, he says.

There are similar concerns about mass entertainment and event businesses. If restrictions on crowd capacity remain, and if businesses choose to be prudent, it's unlikely that demand will recover even for local conventions and meetings to 2019 levels.

Prof Theseira also notes that there might be a bit of a "post-lockdown" bump in demand because of deferred consumption but that will probably be unsustainable, especially since incomes are not stable.

Selena Ling, head of treasury research and strategy at OCBC Bank, points to the United States, where she says the bulk of employment gains would come mainly from the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors post-lockdown, but these are relatively less well-paying jobs.

As wage support from the Singapore government has probably mitigated some of the impact, we may not see as big an uptick as that in the US, she adds. "Overall, I think that the domestic labour market is still likely to soften further in Q3 2020 and possibly till Q4 2020 as well."

But she notes that the first-quarter employment losses were across industries, suggesting the fall in the labour market was caused by a global or external factor rather than a particular structural issue like a sunset industry or a specific competitiveness issue per se.

"This may mean that in time to come, when the external economy rebounds as the Covid-19 pandemic subsides, the prospects for a general growth rebound accompanied by a broad-based recovery in the labour market may also be in the pipeline."


Digital skills will be more in demand in post-pandemic workplace

THE coronavirus pandemic has not only cost jobs, it has also altered the labour landscape, accelerating demand for workers with digital skills across many sectors.

Countries worldwide hunkered down in temporary lockdowns to stem the spread of the virus.

The immediate effect of this was to catalyse digitalisation - consumers who could not go out freely turned to making purchases online, whether for surgical masks or beauty masks.

Jaya Dass, managing director for recruitment agency Randstad (Malaysia and Singapore), tells The Business Times that the recruitment agency has seen companies ramp up their plans for digitalisation since circuit breaker measures were put in place in April.

With consumers now more familiar with online transactions than ever before, e-commerce, cybersecurity, and banktech are expected to expand beyond the pandemic.

Ms Dass says: "Retail stores are starting to have a wider online presence, and banks and insurers are offering more digital solutions to their customers. Companies that have made such changes to their business structure would also expect their employees to be able to keep up."

Another recruitment agency, ManpowerGroup Singapore, agrees that the demand for information technology (IT) professionals and other digital-related roles has increased as a result of the pandemic.

ManpowerGroup Singapore's country manager Linda Teo says: "Employers are hiring mainly for critical roles while transforming existing roles to adapt to the new normal. The job scopes are likely to include a digital component which will require more use of technology. The jobs in demand would change depending on how the business climate evolves."

United Overseas Bank (UOB) economist Barnabas Gan observes this as well, and foresees more jobs in the retail sector that require digital skills, in areas ranging from digital marketing to cybersecurity.

Further, he notes that online learning will likely form a larger part of the education landscape.

"This means that jobs in the education sector will require digital skills, not only to tap information technology solutions to conduct online classes but also to impart such skills to students."

Singapore needs another 60,000 infocomm personnel over the next three years. Yet the education system is producing only 2,800 infocomm graduates each year.

Although there are courses to equip workers with digital skills, those who are less technically inclined would find it hard to acquire the skills in a short period of time.

Associate Professor Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences says this is an issue that goes beyond the pandemic, and is connected to the increasing skills specialisation in the economy.

Economists have already noted for some time the growing importance of specialised skills, as jobs have expanded greatly for high skill areas at the cost of more moderately skilled jobs.

What has received less attention is whether, for highly-skilled workers, there are significant barriers to switching industries or career tracks, Prof Theseira says. Even within fields such as medicine or IT, there are high returns to specialisation and huge barriers to switching - specialist doctors and experienced programmers can't simply switch to a different area within medicine or IT.

Prof Theseira comments: "The lower hanging fruit is likely to be more generalisable tasks within growth sectors. Within IT, for example, there are many jobs beyond just coding or technical jobs. You might not want to train a mature worker to be an entry-level coder. That's unlikely to make sense for the worker or the firm.

"What might make sense is for workers to acquire enough technical knowledge that they can take up a role in sales, management or support, where they can work with experienced coders and serve other business functions.

"Those kinds of positions would make use of the workers' existing general business skills and knowledge, rather than force them to start over at the bottom and compete against entry-level technical specialists."

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