Singapore job market showing signs of strain as economy slows

Retrenchments are rising, firms are more cautious raising wages and it is getting harder for those who lose their jobs to find new work. Among 669 hiring managers in Singapore, attitudes towards the employment outlook in the final three months of the
Retrenchments are rising, firms are more cautious raising wages and it is getting harder for those who lose their jobs to find new work. Among 669 hiring managers in Singapore, attitudes towards the employment outlook in the final three months of the year are at their most pessimistic since the third quarter of 2017, according to a survey.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Outlook may worsen even as MAS expects some economic recovery in coming quarters

Singapore's resilient labour market is starting to come under strain as the trade-reliant economy struggles in the face of global pressures.

Retrenchments are rising, companies are more cautious raising wages and it is getting harder for those who lose their jobs to find new work.

While the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is optimistic about some recovery in the economy in the coming quarters, there are signs the employment outlook may continue to deteriorate.

Analysts are closely watching Singapore's net employment data, job vacancies, average monthly earnings and unemployment rates. Here is a look at what the labour-market gauges tell us about the outlook:

NET EMPLOYMENT OUTLOOK

Among 669 hiring managers in Singapore, attitudes towards the employment outlook in the final three months of the year are at their most pessimistic since the third quarter of 2017, according to the most recent ManpowerGroup survey released last month.

The difference between those saying staff numbers will increase in the fourth quarter versus those predicting a decrease is a slim 5 percentage points, the data shows.

Respondents in the manufacturing sector, which has been especially hard hit by the United States-China trade war, expect the weakest performance in a decade, according to Maybank Kim Eng Research economist Lee Ju Ye.

CAUSE FOR WORRY

I look at the PMET share of retrenchment because this is the most vulnerable segment in the market... This is against conventional wisdom as most people assume that lower-wage workers are more prone to retrenchment, which is not the case in Singapore.

MR IRVIN SEAH, senior economist at DBS Bank, on terminations among professionals, managers, executives, and technicians (PMETs).

JOB VACANCIES

OCBC Bank head of treasury research and strategy Selena Ling has her eyes on the job vacancy-to-unemployed ratio.

DBS Bank senior economist Irvin Seah and Maybank's Ms Lee also closely track this gauge.

The measure slipped below 1 in the second quarter for the first time since the end of 2017, showing that those without jobs outnumbered open roles.

"The job vacancy-to-unemployed person ratio is key to me and it has dipped below parity, suggesting a softening in the labour market," said Mr Seah.

AVERAGE MONTHLY EARNINGS

Pay cheques also have been feeling the pinch, at least through the first half of this year.

Average monthly earnings rose 2.1 per cent in the three months to June, the slowest pace since the start of 2017.

UNEMPLOYMENT RATES

Two unemployment rates tracked in Singapore - one for citizens, and the other for citizens and permanent residents - have been on the rise for the past few quarters.

While still below their post-recession peaks, neither measure has seen a quarterly decline in almost two years and each has been worsening of late.

RETRENCHMENTS

Retrenchments climbed to 2,900 in the third quarter, after easing in the previous three months, according to advanced quarterly data released last week. The biggest losses were in the services industries, although manufacturing and construction also saw job cuts.

The Ministry of Manpower will provide more detailed information about retrenchments in an upcoming report, including whether terminations among professionals, managers, executives and technicians, or PMETs, rose again in the quarter.

That is a cause for worry for Mr Seah. "I look at the PMET share of retrenchment because this is the most vulnerable segment in the market," he said before the advance quarterly report was released.

"This is against conventional wisdom as most people assume that lower-wage workers are more prone to retrenchment, which is not the case in Singapore."

RE-ENTRY DURATION

Ms Ling is also tracking how fast retrenched workers find new jobs, which offers more bleak news.

The Government tallies the share of retrenched workers who return to employment within six months, for any given quarter.

That "re-entry" rate had dropped sharply to 59.9 per cent as of the second quarter, with the figure for those with "diploma and professional qualifications" declining to 57.7 per cent from 70.9 per cent in the first quarter.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2019, with the headline 'Singapore job market showing signs of strain as economy slows'. Print Edition | Subscribe