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News analysis

Local workers, note where the job compass is pointing

If the pulse of the labour market is a sign of economic health, the latest employment numbers hint that the economy is catching a cold.

The number of locals in jobs last year increased by just 100, near zero growth. It is the worst showing since the 1998 Asian financial crisis. Even during the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008, more locals landed jobs then, than last year.

And almost all the employment growth last year - 31,800 more workers were in jobs - came from foreign workers.

Before citizens cry foul, it is not as if their bosses are ditching them for foreigners. More locals are not being hired for the simple reason that most of them are already holding jobs. The citizen unemployment rate was a low 3 per cent last month. The local labour pool is nearing its limits and salaries are rising in the tight labour market.

The median income from full-time work for citizens rose from $3,566 in 2014 to $3,798 last year, a 7 per cent increase in real terms.

"This is a good sign and largely due to the fact that Singapore is moving towards a knowledge-based economy with more citizens securing white-collar, higher-paying jobs," said Mr Foo See Yang, vice-president and country general manager of headhunter Kelly Services Singapore.

The picture is upbeat for fresh graduates too.

The latest graduate employment survey released this month showed that 88.9 per cent of fresh polytechnic graduates landed jobs within six months of graduating. Their $2,100 median monthly salary was 5 per cent higher than the $2,000 in 2014.

There is no immediate danger of locals losing their jobs or their salaries plummeting. But some sectors are clearly downbeat and one must watch out for ripple effects in the future.

Take manufacturing for instance. In the span of one year, it employed 22,400 fewer workers.

Four sectors saw declines in local employment - retail trading, manufacturing, real estate and wholesale trading. In contrast, more locals were hired in the financial, insurance, professional services and community sectors.

Job seekers ought to take note of where the compass is pointing.

For now, the labour market will continue to be buffeted by the sluggish global economy and the slowing economic growth. While there is still demand for workers - a sign that the economy is still growing, although slowly - the demand can easily dissipate in a downturn.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) walks a tightrope to strike a balance between local and foreign worker numbers. Foreign employment growth numbers are a bit of a red herring - their numbers are solely determined by the ministry approving the work pass applications, not market forces.

But it is clear that the MOM will continue to tighten the tap on the inflow of foreign workers.

This means that lifting the productivity of local workers will have to remain the highest priority.

If the economy cannot find more workers and productivity does not rise, economic growth will have to take a hit. Then, the rising wages may become unsustainable and even jobs can get lost.

When asked to comment on the employment numbers, the straight-talking National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Cham Hui Fong said: "We need to speed up upgrading and skills training as quickly as possible to ensure workers remain relevant and stay employable when the economy transforms."

Her words ought to be heeded before the headwinds slow or even sink the boat and bring the labour market tumbling down.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2016, with the headline 'Local workers, note where the job compass is pointing'. Print Edition | Subscribe