Labour market

Jobless rate down, no rise in layoffs

Q3 data offers some relief, but recovery will take time: Observers

The labour market showed further signs of recovery in the third quarter of this year, with a lower overall unemployment rate and no increase in retrenchments, official data released yesterday shows.

But the recovery is likely to take longer than in previous slowdowns because of the uneven growth across sectors and ongoing restructuring, observers said.

Labour MP Patrick Tay, the National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general, said in a Facebook post that he expects pockets of layoffs in the last three months of the year owing to factors such as changing demand patterns and re-organisation by businesses facing technological disruption.

Preliminary data from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) shows that the quarterly unemployment rate dipped 0.1 point to 2.1 per cent last month, after accounting for seasonal variations.

For Singaporeans, the rate was 3.2 per cent last month, down from 3.3 per cent in June and 3.5 per cent in March. But it is still higher than the rate a year earlier of 3 per cent.

For residents - Singapore citizens and permanent residents combined - the rate was 3.1 per cent, unchanged from June but down from 3.2 per cent in March.

The high number of job losses last year seems to have abated too.

Retrenchments in the third quarter of this year - from July to September - dipped to 3,600 from 3,640 in the previous three months.

The figure does not include 130 people retrenched by Singapore Press Holdings this month. They fall under the fourth quarter tally.

MOM cautioned yesterday that it would be hard to further reduce the resident unemployment ratein the medium term owing to, among other things, ongoing economic restructuring and a mismatch between jobs available and workers' skills.The ministry, in its statement, urged restructuring companies "to prepare at-risk workers for new roles in the firm, so as to reduce the need for retrenchments".

Several analysts highlighted the tepid pace of the labour market recovery, which lags behind the strengthening economic growth.

DBS economist Irvin Seah said it is unlike the post-global financial crisis period, in 2010, when the quick rebound was purely cyclical in nature.

In all, the economy employed fewer workers at the end of the third quarter, with total employment, excluding maids, falling by 2,500 - the third consecutive quarter of decline. The contraction, however, is smaller than in the past two quarters and mainly due to a drop in work permit holders in the marine and construction industries.

Total employment as of last month was 3,658,300, or 19,800 lower than at the end of last year.

Employment in the service sector continues to rise, while manufacturing has been shedding workers for three straight years despite surprisingly strong growth in output in the past year.

Maybank Kim Eng economist Chua Hak Bin said the reason is that the manufacturing boom is led by electronics, particularly semiconductors, and technology firms can ramp up production without having to hire too many extra workers.

Marine transport, on the other hand, is labour-intensive and has had to lay off staff as equipment orders collapse with lower oil prices.

Looking ahead, MOM highlighted job opportunities in five priority sectors: infocomms and media, finance and insurance, healthcare, professional services and wholesale trade. More support is being developed for these areas, such as professional conversion programmes to help mid-career workers gain skills and be placed in new jobs.

More than 1,500 people have used such programmes in all sectors in the first half of this year.

Singapore University of Social Sciences economist Randolph Tan said this "matchmaking" approach for individual cases, rather than taking entire groups of jobseekers and training them for an industry, is a better way of improving the fit of new hires with companies.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2017, with the headline 'Jobless rate down, no rise in layoffs'. Print Edition | Subscribe