From The Gallery - Parliament

Rethinking jobs for Covid-19 and beyond

S'pore cannot go back to status quo ante - that is one truth the crisis has laid bare

As countries around the world emerge from lockdown, a second wave of job cuts looms, this time among white-collar workers.

In Singapore, some economists have put job losses this year at around 100,000. But early estimates may not capture the full economic drag.

As government aid such as the Jobs Support Scheme tapers off by the end of the year, more executives could be laid off in sectors where front-line workers were hit first, such as food and beverage (F&B) and hotels. The financial pain could spread to related sectors such as professional services, real estate and finance.

The knock-on effects would be severe. Middle-class Singaporeans are key drivers of discretionary spending; a fall in incomes means lower consumer spending and stalled economic growth.

Businesses are navigating the new Covid-19 reality warily - a reality which appears to have no need for as many workers. Already, some jobs have disappeared. Countries from China to the Netherlands, for example, are using robot servers in restaurants.

With hiring sentiment at its nadir, temporary jobs, internships and other forms of training must be created.

In Parliament yesterday, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo described what such opportunities - which involve opening up new pathways to jobs - look like.

She singled out three groups of Singaporeans for attention: retrenched and mid-career persons from all sectors; fresh graduates from Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics, universities and other educational institutions; and self-employed persons seeking to remain SEPs or move into regular employment.

She acknowledged that today, the jobs they get may not be immediate or permanent ones: "But it should be a path that allows for people to use their time meaningfully, learn something useful and gain valuable experience."

A key part of this effort is the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package, and the scaling up of the SGUnited Jobs Initiative to provide more than 40,000 jobs this year.

Of these, many permanent positions in the public sector are a result of hiring plans that were brought forward, said Mrs Teo. They include jobs in science and engineering, early childhood education, healthcare and long-term care.

Career conversion programmes will be beefed up. This will help job seekers reskill for new roles in the private sector, such as auxiliary police officers.

The Government also plans to set up satellite career centres in all Housing Board towns.

But for matches to happen, she urged job seekers to keep an open mind: "Stay open to pathways that you would not have considered previously. Give the employers a chance and give yourself a chance."

On the information and communications technology front, Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran spoke of how programmes such as the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) Mid-Career Advance programme, which trains and places jobs for professionals aged 40 and above, aim to create 2,500 jobs in the next three years. The Digital Resilience Bonus will help businesses adopt solutions such as online ordering, e-invoicing, inventory management and e-payments.

MPs cautioned that such programmes are not a magic bullet to stem job losses and business closures. They also pointed out that programme delivery can be improved. Nominated MP Douglas Foo noted the lack of training courses conducted in Chinese, Malay or Tamil, languages which older workers may be more comfortable with.

NTUC deputy secretary-general Heng Chee How, who stressed the need to invest in older workers, called for the hiring incentive under the SkillsFuture Mid-Career Support Package to be extended from six months to 12. This would incentivise employers to offer job contracts of at least a year to mature job seekers, he said.

The Government plans to set up satellite career centres in all HDB towns. Manpower Minister Josephine Teo urged job seekers to keep an open mind for matches to happen. "Stay open to pathways that you would not have considered previously. Give the employers a chance and give yourself a chance," she said. ST FILE PHOTO

Other MPs drew the discussion back to Singapore's economic fundamentals, with NTUC assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay stressing the need to hire and strengthen the Singaporean core in all areas.

Nominated MP Walter Theseira asked if the high level of substitutability between migrant and local labour, for jobs such as cleaners and F&B assistants, has put downward pressure on wages and benefits. "We should recognise that essential services and manual jobs, by their requirement for a physical presence, offer some resilience against a world where office work can be potentially shifted globally," he said.

"Rather than develop an economy where most Singaporeans, despite their different skills and talents, feel compelled to earn degrees to hold PMET (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) jobs, we can build an economy of skilled and decently paid craftsmen, technicians and service workers," he added.

If there is a truth that the pandemic has laid bare, it is that Singapore cannot go back to the status quo ante.

Jobs considered to be of lower status have kept the country going despite the circuit breaker. They should not be left out of the drive to improve skills and transform digitally for a post-Covid-19 world.

It may also be useful to reconsider, as Associate Professor Theseira said, whether Singaporeans should take up only PMET jobs - and migrant workers, the rest.

But such fundamental change will require a mindset shift by generations of Singaporeans. Many have grown up believing that the ticket to a good life is a university degree and an office job. Businesses will also have to relook the way they hire and operate.

One trusts that the recently formed Emerging Stronger Taskforce and National Jobs Council will not let a good crisis go to waste. There is no better time to take a hard look at these issues and make ground-breaking recommendations.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2020, with the headline Rethinking jobs for Covid-19 and beyond. Subscribe