Going by key economic metrics, Singaporeans will have to gird themselves against job disruptions in the coming months. That was signalled by Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say and labour movement chief Chan Chun Sing in response to the recent labour market report on the first half of the year. The reversal of trends was clearly etched out in the Manpower Ministry's observation that "job seekers outnumbered job openings for the first time since June 2012". Thus, old assumptions about jobs need to be set aside and a clear view taken of the markets.
First, local employment growth is constrained by smaller cohorts of youngsters marching into the job market - a trend that will continue, as reflected in the plan to merge 22 secondary schools into 11 schools by 2018 due to falling enrolments. Meanwhile, more baby boomers are retiring. These are what economists refer to as structural changes that alter the way the economy ticks. Second, is the effect weaker demand globally has on jobs - a cyclical phenomenon. Third, is the restructuring of the economy which is an inevitable fact of life and existence for the city-state.
In its formative years, it relied on labour-intensive industrialisation to tackle mass unemployment. As other countries did the same and offered lower wage costs, Singapore banked on capital-intensive and high-technology industries to create better jobs. Progressively, the focus shifted to innovation and knowledge-based work to stay one step ahead of the competition. To strive to protect old labour-dependent jobs would be futile as no small domestic market and open economy can compete on that basis. Labour must be simply used well and skills upgraded.
Though markets are vulnerable to disruptions by technological advances and new business models, there is still a window of opportunity for economies to adapt to changes and get "into the game of global value chains", as Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam noted at the Singapore Summit dialogue last week. This time should not be squandered as restructuring calls for sustained effort for its benefits to be felt broadly.
As layoffs increase and job vacancies shrink, workers will have to look at new areas calling for higher skills, and at sectors where labour is tight like community, social and personal services, transportation and storage, and accommodation and food services. There are also initiatives available like SkillsFuture and Adapt and Grow, which include the expanded Professional Conversion Programme for those switching careers and the Career Support Programme to help displaced professionals, managers, executives and technicians find quality jobs. These and other job measures work best when all stakeholders are deeply involved. Much-vaunted tripartism, therefore, must rise to the occasion; and so must workers.