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NEWS ANALYSIS

It's still early days for rescue efforts aimed at mid-career job seekers

HR specialists say assessing benefit of various initiatives for this group will take time

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Besides fresh graduates, mature workers are also expected to be increasingly at risk due to the prolonged nature of the pandemic.

Singapore

IF recent policy moves are a gauge, mid-career job seekers have become a priority demographic for placement into Singapore's labour market.

For instance, the new S$1 billion Jobs Growth Incentive, which co-funds the salaries of new local hires, offers a higher level of support for workers aged 40 years old and above.

In another shake-up, older workers became eligible in August for the SGUnited Traineeships programme earlier open only to fresh and recent graduates, with roles rebranded as company attachments for mid-career job seekers. The latest SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways programme also includes places from a mid-career traineeships scheme announced in May.

The scheme extension followed an overwhelming response from employers, which had wanted to offer more than 35,000 openings to new graduates, government agency Workforce Singapore (WSG) said in end-July.

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The interest was more than the combined 25,000 traineeships promised by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in May's Fortitude Budget, before the two schemes were merged.

So far, some 16,500 roles at 2,100 organisations had been approved under the combined scheme as at Aug 17, and the number of approved positions is expected to go up as more prospective hosts come on board.

Though these traineeships and attachments do not convert automatically into full-time employment, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo has told the House "we are hopeful that companies will find a good number of trainees to be (a) good fit and make them part of their permanent staff".

While Singapore's tent-pole SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package has repeatedly promised some 100,000 jobs, attachments and training positions, OCBC chief economist Selena Ling has said that the scheme "is geared mainly for fresh graduates" as she cited its reliance on traineeships.

That's even as the prolonged nature of the coronavirus crisis "may mean that the group of workers at risk will extend beyond the current graduating cohort" to include mature workers and professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), she told The Business Times.

As such, the latest move may go some way to rebalancing the scales.

Indeed, human resources (HR) specialists find it important to offer opportunities for these mid-career employees to get a foot in the door.

Linda Teo, country manager of human resources firm ManpowerGroup Singapore, told BT that mature workers can gain skills and experience from company attachments, which "will boost their employability and help them move on to new jobs".

Jaya Dass, managing director for Malaysia and Singapore at recruitment agency Randstad, added: "Even if it's a traineeship or a term-based contract role, it gives them a foot in the door to rebuild their career."

All in all, DBS senior economist Irvin Seah also thinks that "there is an increasing recognition that the mid-career workers are definitely facing relatively higher levels of stress".

Still, even with the newfound eligibility for subsidised company attachments, mid-career workers may find themselves fighting for the same pool of opportunities as fresh grads.

Replying to a BT query, a WSG spokesperson said a breakdown comparing entry-level and mid-career positions was not available as "organisations have the option to select the most suitable candidate from a pool of applicants that comprise both new entrants and mid-career individuals".

But Mr Seah argued that it can be structurally more difficult to create mid-level roles than entry-level ones, given a relatively higher labour cost.

When it comes to wage costs, the monthly training allowance for SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways Programme participants is set higher - from S$1,400 to S$3,000, depending on job scope - while fresh graduates under the SGUnited Traineeships Programme can get S$1,100 to S$2,500, based on their qualifications. The government covers 80 per cent of each worker's training allowance.

Yet Ms Dass noted that, with more candidates than jobs on the market, "employers have become more selective".

"Companies that are still hiring are much more reserved about who they want to bring to the team, due to limited headcount budget," she said.

It's also still unclear whether bosses are snapping up mature hires.

"For the traineeships, companies have shown a lot of enthusiasm. Have we seen the same level of enthusiasm for mid-career attachments? That programme is still fairly new," Mrs Teo told a briefing, when asked by BT.

"The companies are looking at the opportunities and they are advertising these attachment programmes; and it will be some time before we are able to update on the status."

Older workers are a perennial concern in the job market because their re-entry rate is lower once displaced.

"By and large, older job seekers and PMET job seekers tend to take a little longer," Mrs Teo said at the Sept 7 briefing. Indeed, Manpower Ministry data showed 58.2 per cent of displaced workers aged 40 and older finding jobs six months after being laid off, in the first quarter, compared with 64 per cent of all job seekers.

Economists are also fretting over the more negative spillover if older breadwinners' livelihoods go kaput.

As Maybank Kim Eng senior economist Chua Hak Bin put it: "Young workers might not face the same financial burden as older mature workers, who might have to support their families and worry about their mortgage loans and retirement savings."

But ultimately, Mark Teoh, executive director of human capital consulting at Deloitte Southeast Asia, touted initiatives "that explicitly tie reskilling programmes to tangible job opportunities" as packing the most punch.

Since many efforts are still ongoing, Martijn Schouten, PwC South-east Asia people and organisation consulting leader, said: "It will take time for us to see how significant the latest round of upskilling initiatives have been for these job seekers' prospects."

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