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Grim third quarter for Singapore labour market

Employment down, resident long-term unemployment up, layoffs high, and jobseeker-vacancy gap widens

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Total employment tumbled by 2,700 in July-September, after slower growth in the past two quarters, according to the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) latest Labour Market Report.


PRELIMINARY data that painted a bleak picture of the labour market in the third quarter was confirmed on Tuesday with the release of the final report. It offers more details of a decline in employment, a rise in resident long-term unemployment, high layoffs, and a widening gap between jobseekers and vacancies.

Total employment tumbled by 2,700 in July-September, after slower growth in the past two quarters, according to the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) latest Labour Market Report.

It was the first drop since the first quarter of 2015. The report says the decline was mainly due to cuts in the manufacturing and construction sectors, and they hit mainly work permit holders.

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For the first nine months of 2016, total employment still rose by 14,500. But it was the lowest growth since the 2009 recession.

Employment in manufacturing fell for the eighth consecutive quarter, slipping by 3,600 in Q3 to bring total losses in the first nine months of the year to 8,900.

"The subdued labour market performance for the sector is likely to extend into the fourth quarter as manufacturing firms expect to hire fewer workers, especially for transport and precision engineering," the report says.

The construction sector was the other one where employment contracted, with losses totalling 3,200 in the nine months.

But the declines in manufacturing and construction were more than made up by the increase in employment in the services sector, where 27,100 jobs were added in the first nine months of the year.

The overall unemployment rate in September stayed the same as in June, at 2.1 per cent, and the rate for residents - Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs) - dipped to 2.9 per cent from 3 per cent, but the report says that jobseekers were taking longer to find work.

The resident long-term unemployment rate increased from 0.6 per cent in September 2015 to 0.8 per cent in September this year - the highest September rate since 2009. The rise was broad-based across ages and qualifications, with increases more pronounced among residents aged 50 and above and those holding diploma and professional qualifications.

Redundancies eased from 4,800 workers in the second quarter to 4,220, but they were still higher than a year ago, when 3,460 workers were axed. And with the latest layoffs, the total for the first nine months of this year was 13,730 workers - higher than a year ago, when the number was 10,220. It was also the highest number of layoffs since 2009.

Most (59 per cent) of the workers made redundant in the third quarter were from the services sector, mainly professional services, financial services, and wholesale trade. Nearly three in four of the residents laid off were professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs).

But the report says that 49 per cent of the residents made redundant in the second quarter found a job by September, a slight improvement over the 45 per cent posted in June. Still, Citigroup economist Kit Wei Zheng pointed out that the percentage remains in the range last seen in the second quarter of 2009.

The report says that the improvement was seen in all age groups, except those 50 and above. "It also increased among PMETs following two preceding quarters of sharp declines."

Nonetheless, PMETs and those with tertiary education still posted below-average re-entry rates in September this year.

Job openings offer some bright spots in the grim picture of the labour market. After a free fall for six straight quarters, the report says, the seasonally adjusted number of job vacancies picked up a bit from 49,900 in June to 50,800 in September. However, the figure remained lower than over a year ago, when job openings numbered 56,500.

And jobseekers continued to outnumber job vacancies for a second straight quarter. The seasonally adjusted ratio of job openings to jobless workers continued to edge lower to 91 job openings per 100 jobseekers in September, down from 93 in June.