Singapore F&B outlets struggle to hire despite offering higher pay

Lai Wah Restaurant in Bendemeer sent its long-time workers for courses in IT and English last year to meet the demands of the business.
Lai Wah Restaurant in Bendemeer sent its long-time workers for courses in IT and English last year to meet the demands of the business.PHOTO: LAIWAHREST/FACEBOOK

Food and beverage (F&B) establishments here continue to struggle with manpower shortages, despite offering higher pay.

Many outlets are under-staffed by 20 per cent to 30 per cent, said the Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS), which has more than 500 members, including restaurants, caterers and fast-food chains.

"Many F&B brands have also commented that even after increasing salaries of their service crew by 25 per cent to 30 per cent, they continue to face difficulty in hiring," RAS said.

Tightened border controls over the past year due to the pandemic have limited the number of foreigners entering Singapore, exacerbating the situation.

Service-sector businesses, including F&B establishments, also have to grapple with the lowering of the ratio of foreign workers they can employ to 35 per cent this year, from 38 per cent last year.

Unfortunately, many Singaporeans think twice before taking up F&B jobs because of the long hours and physical demands, said NeXT Career Consulting Group managing director Paul Heng.

To cope with fewer workers, some restaurants are contemplating smaller formats like counter seating, while others are opening express outlets that reduce the need for wait staff.

Automation and self-help services, including order-taking on the mobile phone, are also becoming widely adopted by restaurants, said PeopleWorldwide Consulting managing director David Leong.

Dr Leong said filling positions in F&B businesses is a perennial problem, and "even pay increments may not move the needle" when it comes to hiring Singaporeans.

The coronavirus situation has forced Swee Choon Tim Sum Restaurant to reinvent its business.

"Manpower has always been the biggest problem in the F&B industry," said its owner, Mr Ernest Ting, 30.

"We would like to try operating on a smaller scale - smaller space, less manpower - to drive revenue."

Besides introducing technology in back-end processes, the popular eatery is also planning new express outlets and cloud kitchens.

Meanwhile, Lai Wah Restaurant in Bendemeer sent its long-time workers for courses in information technology and English last year to meet the demands of the business.

The new skills came in useful when handling more food deliveries amid the pandemic, as the Cantonese restaurant went on more food-delivery platforms, said Dr Wong Choo Wai, 50, a general practitioner and its third-generation owner.

However, the 58-year-old restaurant, which was packed with customers in its heyday, has been contemplating closure, partly due to operational constraints.

Lai Wah has not retrenched any of its 20-odd workers despite being barely able to keep running. Most of the staff have been with the restaurant for decades.

"We treat them as family and take care of them, as they have their own families to look after too," said Dr Wong.

"It's easy to say, 'go for reskilling', but it is always challenging to learn new skills, languages and approaches, and it gets harder with age. We empathise with them."

He feels that it would be a pity to close after decades in the business.

"This was started by my granddad. We uphold the promise to bring authentic, good Cantonese food to the masses by keeping our prices reasonable and authentic," he added. "To me, this is not just about food but also our colourful history and culture."