SINGAPORE - More Singapore residents held jobs at the end of last year despite economic uncertainties, although employment growth slowed slightly.
The annual average unemployment rate for Singaporeans rose to 3.3 per cent, up from 3 per cent in 2018, according to preliminary data released by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on Thursday (Jan 30).
The jobless rate for citizens and permanent residents (PRs) combined rose to 3.2 per cent last year from 2.9 per cent in 2018, while the overall rate, which includes foreigners, rose to 2.3 per cent from 2.1 per cent.
Retrenchments last year for the overall workforce were slightly lower at 10,700, from 10,730 in 2018.
Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said at a media briefing on Thursday that last year's unemployment rates "are a concern but they are not alarming".
Resident and citizen unemployment rates have hovered around 3 per cent for the past decade, she noted. In contrast, in the previous decade, from 2001 to 2009, the unemployment rates were elevated at around 4 per cent to 5 per cent due to a series of shocks such as the dot.com bubble burst, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak from 2001 to 2003 and the global financial crisis in 2009.
"We must remember the context of better-than-expected employment growth and the absence of a spike in retrenchments. When you put the three together, this suggests that the challenge is not primarily lack of job creation but possible job-skills mismatches," said Mrs Teo.
Local employment growth was better than expected, given the economic headwinds and uncertainties, Mrs Teo noted.
Employment of residents grew strongly in services industries such as community, social and personal services, professional services and information and communications, but contracted in industries such as manufacturing and wholesale trade.
In all, last year ended with 26,500 more residents in jobs, about 3 per cent lower than the 27,400 figure for 2018.
Foreign employment grew faster at 28,700. This excludes maids and was faster than the growth of 10,900 in the previous year.
About half of the additional foreign workers last year were work permit holders in construction as the industry recovered, and if they are excluded from the count, the growth in remaining industries is 14,900.
In total, 55,200 more people, excluding foreign domestic workers, were employed in Singapore over the course of last year, the highest annual growth since 2014.
Mrs Teo attributed this to a diversified economy, businesses investing for the medium term and long term, and Singapore remaining open and competitive.
The issue of whether Singaporeans have access to good jobs came to the fore recently, and MOM released an occasional paper on citizens in the labour force last week which showed that the employment rate of Singapore citizens has risen over the past decade, as has the share of professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) among working Singaporeans.
Their median real income also grew faster compared with the total resident workforce, at an average of 3.9 per cent per year over the past five years, compared with 3.8 per cent for residents.
Thursday's MOM report showed that retrenchments last year were slightly lower than the previous year, at 10,700 compared with 10,730, though the numbers rose over the third and fourth quarters of the year.
More workers were let go over the full year in manufacturing and services, while construction saw fewer retrenchments.
Recruitment firm Robert Half Singapore's managing director, Mr Matthieu Imbert-Bouchard, said that the rise in both employment and unemployment suggests that Singapore is operating in a "dual-speed employment market" where demand for workers in modern service sectors like infocomm technology and finance is stronger than in other sectors.
"While jobs in these sectors are continually created and hiring patterns are not expected to deteriorate, there is a shortage of jobseekers that bring the technical skills necessary to help businesses achieve their digital transformation goals," he said.
On the Wuhan virus outbreak, Mrs Teo said that given its inevitable impact on the Singapore economy, the priority on the manpower front is to mitigate the fallout and support affected workers to preserve their livelihoods.
"The outlook has become more uncertain. The Wuhan virus situation, however, will not last forever. We have to address immediate concerns but keep an eye on the future, so for the longer term, we will help businesses to transform and adapt," she said.
National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay said in a Facebook post that layoffs last year were mainly due to re-organisation, restructuring, and transformation alongside global trade and geo-political uncertainties.
"The on-going Wuhan virus and how it pans out will inevitably affect demand and impact sectors such as aviation, travel, hospitality and retail amongst others," he said.
Citi economists Kit Wei Zheng and Ang Kai Wei said that depending on how the virus situation evolves, measures to protect jobs of locals and provide cash flow relief to businesses may be announced either in the upcoming Budget on Feb 18, or in an off-Budget package.