SINGAPORE - Singapore needs to do three things on the jobs front in order to continue to prosper as the economy matures, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday.
These strategies are helping businesses create new jobs, placing displaced workers in alternative jobs and training workers to grow in their jobs, Mr Lee said in his annual May Day Rally speech.
While noting that this Labour Day was being celebrated amid a better mood than last year's, he warned of potential threats to the Singapore economy. Other countries want to stay open to trade for now, but if the harder American stance towards trade leads to a tit-for-tat fight, he said the global mood will turn sour quickly.
"Because our economy is so dependent on trade, if a trade war breaks out, even if it does not involve us directly, it's going to hurt our economy and we have to be prepared for that," he said.
The unemployment rate has crept up to about 2.3 per cent, which is low compared to all the other developed countries which typically see rates of 5 to 10 per cent, Mr Lee said. But it may rise further because there are similar pressures here as in the developed countries - industries must continue restructuring, the workforce is ageing, and older workers who lose jobs take longer to find new ones.
"I expect our unemployment rate will gradually tend to creep up," he told over 1,500 labour movement leaders at Our Tampines Hub.
"We have to understand this trend, but at the same time we have to work hard to resist it, to keep our workers in jobs."
The first strategy of creating new jobs means bringing in new businesses and investments and upgrading existing companies, which has been Singapore's winning formula for 50 years, he said, speaking at the first of the National Trades Union Congress' (NTUC) events for its May Day celebrations this month.
Several new projects by multinationals such as electronics company Micron, IT company Google and chemicals company Evonik have brought in some 1,650 new jobs.
Small and medium enterprises are also getting help to upgrade themselves, go overseas, expand, and do new things. Mr Lee cited the example of local book-binding company Grandluxe which tried to expand into the printing business, but was affected by digitalisation. So they started a new retail company called Bynd Artisan to let customers personalise leather books and goods, which created new types of jobs for employees who can be craftsmen and shop managers. He said the company ceased to be a printing business and became a retail experience.
Apart from creating new jobs, workers who lose their jobs - especially professionals, manager, executives and technicians (PMETs) - are being helped to find alternative jobs, he said.
This is important because there will be redundancies even as the economy grows, due to business restructuring and technological disruption.
Adapt and Grow schemes have been expanded to help affected workers, and the unions are also helping to match workers with jobs. For example, the offshore and marine industry lost about 30,000 jobs since it was last at its growth peak about three years ago. Most of them were foreign workers, but about 1,000 of those retrenched last year were locals, he said.
The Singapore Industrial and Services Employees' Union and the Institution of Engineers Singapore organised job fairs for offshore and marine workers to find new jobs in growing industries like aerospace and transport engineering.
Youth unemployment remains low because schools prepare the young properly for the job market, and the NTUC provides career guidance for young people, Mr Lee added.
While opportunities are being created for workers young and old, workers should be open minded and flexible to make the most of them, he said.
"Be willing to try something new, not just new jobs with new employers, but new careers in different industries. Take up courses, reskill," he said.
Employers also need to do their part by recruiting mature workers and not just fresh graduates. Many government agencies such as the Land Transport Authority, Education Ministry and Health Ministry have been hiring mid-career PMETs and mature workers, he said.
The third strategy is to support all workers to upgrade their skills and knowledge.
Mr Lee said that workers in other countries know they need to work hard to keep their jobs.
In the Chinese city Chengdu, for example, workers at smart factories can monitor and troubleshoot 20 machines, and do e-learning in their spare time.
"Unless we are as hungry...our cheese may be stolen," he said, adding that SkillsFuture is a good start to the skills upgrading movement.
The tripartite partnership between employers, unions and the Government has allowed Singapore to transform its economy over and over, to keep up with the economic challenges, said Mr Lee.
Going forward, the industry transformation maps for 23 growth industries are at the centre of the efforts to transform the economy and grow jobs. The logistics industry, for example, has bright prospects because of technology, robotics and data analytics and should see another 2,000 PMET jobs in the next five years.
Employers will need to invest in technology and train up workers, the unions must work with employers to identify where the new jobs will be and help workers to get the necessary skills, and the Government will support companies to adopt new technology and workers to get training.
Implementing the maps will be one task of the generation of younger ministers, who will be in the Future Economy Council which will be chaired by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, said Mr Lee.
"We will no doubt face further challenges ahead, even serious ones. But if we strengthen the tripartite system, and remain united, if the labour movement remains strong, takes care of our workers and makes them co-owners in our system, if all segments of society - workers as well as employers, managers and professionals as well as foremen and rank-and-file - sacrifice equally when sacrifice is called for, and share in the fruits of success when things go well, I am confident we will overcome the challenges and emerge stronger," he said.