Contract work on the rise in Singapore, says Robert Walters CEO

The recruitment agency plans to expand its contracting business in Singapore


CONTRACT employment is more attractive than one might think, with the option gaining traction among professionals in Singapore.

In an exclusive interview with The Business Times, chief executive Robert Walters of the eponymous global recruitment agency revealed that the firm plans to expand its contract line of business in Singapore.

"There's an expansion in Singapore of the contract market, which is traditionally seen in a lot of countries as a second choice - you can't get a permanent job, so you may do temporary work," said Mr Walters, who has headed the consultancy for more than three decades. "But increasingly, and particularly in areas such as project management of technology, it's becoming far more popular as a route."

Mr Walters said that contrary to the common perception of temporary roles, contractors can often be hired at senior management levels with an attractive pay.

On an individual level, the contract model affords people the flexibility to better control their work-life balance and the leeway to upskill and make themselves more attractive to employers, he added.

According to Toby Fowlston, managing director of Robert Walters South-east Asia, Singapore's contracting market has grown significantly in recent years, and more candidates are wanting to take on these roles as well.

Contracting constituted 34 per cent of Robert Walters Singapore's net fee income last year; from 2012 to 2016, the business segment grew 56 per cent. The firm declined to provide growth projections.

In particular, the Singapore branch has seen high demand for contractors in the regulatory and compliance sector, as well as in the project management and architecture of technology.

"In financial services, with a lot of the off-shoring that has happened in the last two years, banks know that they need resources, but they don't necessarily know if it's going to be a permanent resource because they are looking at the next 12 to 18 months," said Mr Fowlston.

The Robert Walters Global Salary Survey 2017 forecast that contractors in the local banking and financial services can expect salary increments of 7 to 15 per cent this year.

The survey also noted that as some organisations in the supply chain and procurement sector undergo mergers and acquisitions, the demand for process improvement and project managers on a contract basis will rise.

Other multinational recruitment firms have seen similar findings in their surveys.

Hays said that 65 per cent of Singapore employers used temporary workers or contractors from a recruitment agency last year. Meanwhile, Michael Page found that the top three benefits received by contract workers are annual leave (68 per cent), medical coverage (57 per cent) and completion bonuses (34 per cent).

Contracting currently constitutes 31 per cent of Robert Walters' global business, based on net fee income - a figure that has remained consistent over the past five years. Mr Walters noted that hiring contract workers can help organisations grapple with the strict staff retention laws that exist in some countries, such as France.

In these cases, it is more realistic for the company to hire someone on a temporary basis if their needs might quickly change, he said.

Mr Fowlston acknowledged that contract work does come with a degree of instability due to its transient nature.

"However, in the current market where there is an increasing number of contract requirements at all levels of seniority . . . the risk weighted on balance would probably tip in favour of taking up a contract as opposed to not and waiting for a permanent role," he said.

Mr Fowlston noted that a high proportion of contract terms - typically lasting six months or more - are extended. The Singapore office is also seeing more contract roles being converted into permanent positions, and opportunities within the organisation being given to contractors rather than new applicants.

On how recruitment has evolved through the years, Mr Walters said that while employers in the past would approach recruiters for knowledge, employers now are seeking expertise for filtering the vast amounts of applicant data brought about by the onset of technology.

His advice for the human resource department of a multinational firm?

"Don't just rely on technology. Use it as a directory, by all means, but the human interface is going to make your job a lot easier."

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