Matching skills to demand

Being underemployed in Singapore is not a cause for worry when there is full employment now, accompanied by a growing variety of jobs being created as the economy moves up the value chain in services and manufacturing technologies. Casual work is also not a significant occupational feature among workers here. In countries where part-time work is common, whether out of choice or as a result of limited opportunities, underemployment tends to be noticeable.

This statistic will not worry the socially advanced and lightly populated Nordic countries, where shorter work weeks and more leisure are conditioned to a large extent by their region's short daylight hours. It is a different matter in heavily populated Britain, where half of recent graduates are in jobs that do not require degrees. (In retrospect, the conversion of technical colleges to full universities in England and Wales would seem to have been an ill-considered move.) In Australia, a Melbourne University study says that underemployment is the norm in academia, an irony as an investment in higher education supposedly commands a market premium.

Singapore is in neither extreme. Overall for the workforce, underemployment fell from 4.6 per cent to 4.2 per cent over three years. It rose fractionally for graduates, which was rather a surprise. It is worth studying which degree-holders suffered most from underemployment. The upshot is that the state should not accept what little underemployment there is as a natural condition of an economic transition. It will rise as the economy gets more sophisticated and the priorities of working people change.

Singapore is heading in that direction, and both planners and the population have to be prepared for it. The speed at which employers and planners acknowledge the change and adjust to it will determine how well-adjusted tomorrow's workforce can be. For lower-income workers, for example in the cleaning and security sectors, part-time hours on top of modest hourly rates are not going to make their austere lives any easier. The NTUC's efforts to raise competencies and pay in these sectors will not succeed if employers do not cooperate. There is some way to go here.

Among graduates, persistent underemployment will raise questions about how well tertiary institutions are preparing students for the working world. Are courses in sync with employers' needs? This explains the recent push to tailor output that is relevant to what the market demands. As for professionals and managers, who account sizeably for the underemployment, it is a reminder of the need to keep abreast of changes in technology and changing workplace practices to remain valuable and in demand.