Ways to beat the manpower crunch

Employers need a change of mindset to stay afloat as the manpower crunch becomes a fixture of economic restructuring. The raising of levies and the imposition of higher salary criteria for foreigners to qualify for work passes have helped to level the field considerably for Singaporean workers. A more Singaporeanised workforce needs employers to take a new view of potential workers such as women, including housewives, older people, the disabled, students and ex-offenders, whether as full-time or as part-time workers.

The numbers are not insignificant. The Singapore National Employers Federation notes that an untapped pool of 375,000 women and older people could help ease the labour crunch if they could be attracted back to work through flexible work arrangements. The challenge lies, not in the absence of schemes that further job flexibility, but in the attitude that employers adopt. For example, the WorkPro programme, set up by the Manpower Ministry and the Singapore Workforce Development Agency in March last year, helps employers carry out job redesign and flexible work arrangements. However, such schemes will be more of a success only if employers are willing to view older people in particular as assets who bring a wealth of experience to the table and not as workers who have passed their prime.

Similarly, ex-offenders who are absorbed into the labour force benefit themselves, their families, their companies and society at large. Enlightened employers understand that most former criminals are desperate to rejoin society as law-abiding members, and it is this keenness to start a new life that is likely to make them dedicated workers as well. It is welcome that offenders released from prison will receive more help with skills essential to adjust to life outside, thus giving employers a larger pool of such workers to choose from. There is a natural reticence in trusting someone who has broken the law, but a tight labour market adds economic urgency to the socially conscionable policy of giving them a second chance. A similarly inclusive attitude to the disabled would create a larger number of potential workers.

Within this spectrum of employable people, part-timers such as students help to meet seasonal surges in demand for labour while also providing a more permanent source of manpower. Companies which are attracting them with bonuses and medical benefits, in addition to their statutory dues, exemplify the changing attitudes required of firms to survive and thrive in a restructuring economy.

Singapore's hidden labour force must now step forward and prove that it can use the opportunities created by the labour crunch.