The job market will be challenging in the months and years ahead, but Singaporeans will be able to progress in their careers so long as the country can do two things consistently well, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo yesterday.
These are creating good jobs and transforming them to keep up with industry needs and workers' aspirations, she said in a speech outlining the approach of the country's fourth-generation (4G) leadership to ensure Singaporeans can navigate economic restructuring and benefit from job opportunities.
In the short term, if Singapore faces a general downturn, the response will depend on the causes and impact. A downturn on the scale and scope of the one caused by the global financial crisis in 2008/2009 appears very unlikely, she said.
Singapore's economy today is well diversified and while sectors like electronics have weakened, others like information and communications are holding up well.
"For now, we should keep a close watch over the economy. At the same time, keep sharpening our competitiveness and grow where we can," she said.
She was at an event to show appreciation to career coaches and workers who found jobs through the Government's Adapt and Grow programmes, which help people do better in their careers.
Preliminary data released on Friday showed that unemployment for Singaporeans rose and employment growth slowed in the second quarter of this year, though retrenchments dipped. Employers are more cautious in hiring.
But job-matching efforts are bearing fruit. Mrs Teo said that in the first half of this year, about 18,000 job seekers secured jobs through the Adapt and Grow programmes as well as career-matching services by Workforce Singapore (WSG) and the National Trades Union Congress' Employment and Employability Institute (e2i).
This is about 9 per cent more than those helped in the first half of last year, she said, adding that over six in 10 of those placed in the first half of this year were previously unemployed.
While the pool of career coaches in WSG and e2i has remained at around 120 over the years, placements grew more than 40 per cent between 2016 and last year.
In the medium term, Mrs Teo said demographic and technology trends pose a threat to jobs and employment. Birth rates are low, and the population is ageing.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and several 4G ministers will speak on marriage and parenthood as well as the ageing population in the coming weeks, added Mrs Teo.
As for technology, there is worry around the world that automation and artificial intelligence will replace human workers, but for Singapore, "there are actually many more upsides than downsides", she said, addressing more than 120 people at the event in the Grand Hyatt.
This is because the economy creates many more jobs than there are people to do them, with a total workforce of 3.5 million and a local workforce of just 2.3 million.
While pushing businesses to improve productivity, the Government must also help workers gain mastery in their jobs by using technology, so that they need not fear it but embrace it, she added.
STRATEGY FOR THE LONG TERM
In the long term, the Government is working to help Singaporeans achieve career mobility, so that people can choose different pathways as their needs evolve, said Mrs Teo.
"Tomorrow's workers are not looking for jobs just to put food on the table. Many more want careers that engage their imagination and energies, giving them meaning and purpose," she added.
Job creation remains reasonably strong, with more jobs than job seekers most of the time.
But it will take hard work to continue attracting local and foreign companies to base their operations here to provide jobs, she said.
She added: "Our politics must not cause investors to lose confidence, because it will be ordinary workers that pay the price, not politicians."
The jobs must be of good quality, too, but employers sometimes need a push to upgrade jobs.
"A little tightness (in the labour market) is necessary and why we sometimes have to make unpopular policy adjustments, such as moderating access to foreign manpower in some sectors," she said, noting however that there is support for companies that make the effort to improve jobs, as well as for job seekers to gain the skills to move into vacancies.
Besides creating quality jobs, employers must transform jobs continuously so that workers can contribute more meaningfully, said Mrs Teo. For example, central kitchens now use auto-fryers which free up cooks to focus on food quality, and flexible work arrangements cater to staff who would otherwise stop work for caregiving duties, she said.
And as jobs are transformed, this creates a healthy demand for skills to be upgraded, she added.
Singapore's unique tripartite cooperation between the Government, employers and unions will allow it to implement its strategies for jobs and skills transformation well. Agencies need to coordinate closely with one another, trade associations and chambers must help design road maps and effectively guide members, and the labour movement needs to galvanise workers and help them adapt.
For example, the tripartite Future Economy Council led by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat is overseeing the implementation of the industry transformation maps. Unions are also working with employers through company training committees to help reskill workers to support restructuring.
"This will save workers from potential redundancy, while boosting the likelihood that business plans succeed," said Mrs Teo.
She noted that today's job situation "can hardly be described as a crisis". But amid challenging times ahead, the Singapore way is to find opportunity in every adversity.
"When it comes to jobs and skills, we have a window of opportunity to move ahead while others are still getting organised," she said. "We have already started. Our Singapore way must be to work together to open up this lead."
Correction note: This article has been edited for clarity.