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Economic agencies have flexibility to let in needed foreign skills
THE criteria for hiring foreign professionals has tightened, but economic agencies can exercise some flexibility in allowing companies to bring in the talent they need, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say on Friday.
However, this flexibility applies only to companies which give fair consideration to local workers, and want to hire talents with skills that are in demand globally, but lacking in Singapore.
This is in line with ongoing efforts to develop local capabilities and transform the Singapore economy, said the minister, who was speaking at a dialogue held by the Singapore National Employers' Federation following the post-Budget debate in Parliament.
Since November, some companies keen to hire foreign workers whose salaries fall below the minimum required for an Employment Pass (EP) have been allowed to do so, said Mr Lim. These exceptions were granted after consultations with economic agencies such as the Economic Development Board, National Research Foundation and the Info-communications Media Development Authority.
Companies have to fulfil some key conditions - including compliance with the Fair Consideration Framework, which requires employers to consider Singaporeans first when hiring.
But even with this selective flexibility, companies must focus on developing a pipeline of local workers with the required skills, Mr Lim told the audience of about 700 company representatives.
"We hope that this short-term flexibility will not lead to long-term dependency."
He was responding to concerns raised by companies about Singapore's talent shortage, especially in fast-growing tech sectors such as cyber security, artificial intelligence and data analytics. Companies have said that the manpower shortage is holding back growth, especially amid efforts to go digital and transform.
The minister stressed that there will be no U-turn on Singapore's foreign manpower policy, as efforts to raise productivity and reduce reliance on foreign manpower continue.
Acknowledging that it will take time to build up a pool of local talent with the right skills, he said Singapore's door remains open to foreign professionals with the skills needed for businesses to upgrade and transform.
But the criteria for bringing in such workers on EPs, for example, have been made more stringent to encourage companies to attract and retain higher-quality employees, he added.
The Manpower Ministry raised the qualifying salary for EP applications from S$3,300 to S$3,600 from Jan 1, 2017.
The minister also responded to concerns that companies' manpower woes are weighing on their ability to take advantage of immediate growth opportunities.
"I believe we can do both together - run fast in the short term and build up local capabilities for the long term."
To help companies with this, the government has launched the Capability Transfer Programme, which will support companies in bringing in foreign specialists to transfer skills to the local workforce.
This approach is "both pro-business and pro-worker", said Mr Lim. The economy will eventually hollow out if businesses cannot transform and grow, which means jobs will be lost and workers will also suffer.
But as the government supports businesses in their efforts to transform, employers also need to give good jobs to Singaporeans, he said. "We cannot be pro-business unless you are also pro-worker. If we support (businesses)... but at the end of the day, all the good jobs go to foreigners, then what is the purpose (of all these industry transformation efforts)?"