GOVERNMENT PRIORITIES: A LOOK AT SIX KEY AREAS

Manpower: A lean, productive workforce

Among the key areas that the Government is focusing on is to get Singapore workers and companies ready for the future. The biggest headache is how to turbocharge the productivity drive, which has been stuck in reverse gear for some years.
Among the key areas that the Government is focusing on is to get Singapore workers and companies ready for the future. The biggest headache is how to turbocharge the productivity drive, which has been stuck in reverse gear for some years.ST FILE PHOTO
With the reappointment of Mr Lim Swee Say (above) as Manpower Minister and and labour chief Chan Chun Sing
as Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, the focus is on continuing the manpower policies started or
announced in the last term of governm
With the reappointment of Mr Lim Swee Say (above) as Manpower Minister and and labour chief Chan Chun Sing as Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, the focus is on continuing the manpower policies started or announced in the last term of government.
With the reappointment of Mr Lim Swee Say as Manpower Minister and and labour chief Chan Chun Sing
(above) as Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, the focus is on continuing the manpower policies started or
announced in the last term of governm
With the reappointment of Mr Lim Swee Say as Manpower Minister and and labour chief Chan Chun Sing (above) as Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, the focus is on continuing the manpower policies started or announced in the last term of government.

Amid the changes announced in the new Cabinet line-up, one area stood out - for not standing out. This was the manpower sector, in which there was no change to the two top ministerial appointments.

Mr Lim Swee Say was reappointed Manpower Minister, and labour chief Chan Chun Sing the Minister in the Prime Minister's Office. Both had taken on these roles in May.

The continuity in their appointments shows the direction of manpower policies over the current term of government: What started or was announced last term will continue to run their course.

This means the focus is on keeping the workforce lean and productive, maintaining its strong Singaporean core, raising the quality of foreign workers, and getting workers and companies ready for the future.

With no big policy shifts expected, the Government and its union and employer partners will have to coordinate their efforts to ensure policies like SkillsFuture, Silver Support and an employment tribunal are put in place effectively to prepare for an uncertain economic landscape.

But both ministers will still have their work cut out for them. Their biggest headache is how to turbocharge the productivity drive, which has been stuck in reverse gear for some years. Beyond the next few years, a bigger problem looms: Dramatically fewer local workers are coming on stream for jobs.

Growth in local-worker employment will be slashed to about 20,000 a year towards the end of this decade - less than a quarter of the 95,000 growth figure last year. Eventually, the number of local job entrants will hit a peak and more workers may eventually exit the workforce than those entering - even as controls remain tight on the inflow of foreign workers.

The priority of the Manpower Ministry (MOM) and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) is to overcome these structural changes in the labour force. If mishandled, the economy - which this year has shown subdued growth - can suffer because workers are an essential part of it.

PRODUCTIVITY GETS A RESET

In 2010, Singapore set an ambitious target of 2 to 3 per cent productivity growth annually between 2010 and 2019. Productivity rose in 2010, 2011 and 2013 - but fell in 2012 and last year. Worryingly, labour productivity fell 0.5 per cent for January to June this year, down in all sectors, including manufacturing, construction and services. The MOM has conceded that there is a low likelihood of a significant uplift in productivity for the rest of the year.

One way the Government hopes to inject a new burst of energy into the productivity drive is through the national SkillsFuture movement.

The SkillsFuture Council, formed last year to spearhead efforts towards an integrated system of education, training and career progression, is headed by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and comprises unionists, business leaders and government officials.

A key scheme it is rolling out is SkillsFuture Credit. All Singaporeans aged 25 and older will receive $500 to enrol in courses to upgrade their skills from next year.

The move puts the responsibility of skills upgrading in the hands of local workers. While $500 may not appear to be much, consider this: If their course receives a 90 per cent government subsidy, they can attend a $5,000 course for free.

But it is one thing to put the training money in the workers' hands; it is quite another to help them use it wisely to boost their skills and their firms' productivity. This is an area that the authorities and unions ought to address. So far, they have not said how they would do so.

Still, the strategic shift of the productivity focus from companies to workers is an important one.

OLDER WORKERS IN SPOTLIGHT

Elsewhere in the labour force, there is also another shift taking place - towards older workers.

By 2017, the Government will update the law to raise the re-employment age from the current 65 to 67. After the higher age ceiling kicks in, bosses must rehire healthy workers who have performed satisfactorily until they reach the age of 67, or give them a one-off payment.

MOM, NTUC and their tripartite partner, the Singapore National Employers Federation, still have some time to prepare firms for the change.

While older workers who want to keep their jobs will cheer the raising of the re-employment age, those who prefer to retire will be waiting in anticipation for two announcements related to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and the Silver Support Scheme.

By the end of this year, the government-appointed panel that is reviewing the CPF system will release its final recommendations on tweaks to provide more flexibility in how CPF monies are invested.

In August, Parliament passed the Silver Support Scheme Bill to provide elderly Singaporeans with between $300 and $750 every three months. It kicks in next year. The move, with changes to the CPF system, will address the financial worries of older Singaporeans in their twilight years.

Professionals, managers and executives (PMEs), meanwhile, are eager to see a new employment claims tribunal set up. In April last year, MOM mooted a tribunal to handle pay disputes of all workers, regardless of how much they earn.

It was meant to address a gripe among PMEs: Only workers covered by the Employment Act and those earning less than $4,500 a month can seek MOM's help with salary disputes. PMEs can pursue breached employment contracts only by filing civil suits, which are often expensive and protracted.

Eighteen months later, MOM is tight-lipped on details. To help PMEs, the tribunal should be set up sooner rather than later.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 25, 2015, with the headline 'Manpower: A lean, productive workforce'. Print Edition | Subscribe