Safe footing on road to reinvention

AN UNAVOIDABLE downside of economic restructuring is job loss. The rise in the number of layoffs last year as compared to 2013 suggests creative destruction is proceeding apace. There is cause for concern as some 12,930 workers lost their jobs in 2014, the highest figure since the recession in 2009.

Increasingly, those affected are older, skilled workers from the ranks of professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs). That is consistent with a changed Singapore workforce - one that is today better educated and older than in the economy's high-growth years.

For now, displaced workers enjoy relative ease of re-entry, with close to seven in 10 of those laid off last year landing new jobs by December. But PMETs and degree holders lagged behind the rest in securing replacement jobs. The gap could be due to greater competition for jobs or greater selectivity on these workers' part.

What bears watching are structural causes, including a possible mismatch between the skills displaced PMETs possess and those in demand by employers. Robot workers and their human counterparts in the developing world are also moving up the value chain, and posing a new threat to mid-skilled employees.

Amid such shifts in a rapidly changing world, even well-educated workers will have to pick their way with care to find viable paths of employment. During the industrial age, many nations, like Singapore, planned and matched education curriculum and intake to employers' stated needs which did not change dramatically as they do now. Then, large firms could provide workers with secure jobs and training over their entire career. For many, that era is fading away. Today, policymakers struggle to predict what jobs will look like and what skills will be in demand in just a decade's time.

The onus will be on workers, especially PMETs, to take charge of their own learning and career paths. They must be prepared to update their skills regularly, and invest time and money to do so. Governments can help ease their burden through training subsidies and grants, such as the SkillsFuture Credit, which gives all Singaporeans aged 25 and up $500 to upgrade their skills. Employers can play their part by giving workers time off to do so.

As technology and market changes ripple across different sectors, jobs and joblessness will remain a top national concern. Unemployment, under-employment - especially among the tertiary educated - and re-employment of older workers, will pose fresh challenges to test tripartism and the ability of institutions to adequately meet the needs of the market, by training and re-training workers for multiple careers.