Fewer job vacancies last year as employers turned cautious: MOM

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said that the labour market overall performed better than expected last year.
Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said that the labour market overall performed better than expected last year.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Even before the coronavirus outbreak, employers were more cautious about hiring last year amid economic uncertainties.

As a result, the seasonally adjusted ratio of job vacancies to unemployed persons fell to 0.84 in December, down from 1.09 a year earlier, according to the latest figures released by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on Thursday (March 12).

Economists said this is a sign of things to come, given that  the outlook has soured as the coronavirus spreads around  the world. 
Unemployment and retrenchments are likely to worsen this year due to the virus situation, they said. 

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said Singapore has to brace itself for a more bumpy road ahead. This is why the Government’s priority is to stem job losses, she said, speaking with reporters about the labour market situation at an event on Tuesday. 

“In the medium- to longer-term if you look at what Singapore will be in the future, given the fact that our working-age population will not expand by so much and given the fact that in the last few years the labour market was still relatively tight, I think the opportunities are still here,” she said.

“But we have to be quite realistic. We have to know that for the next few months the priority has to be help the companies settle down. And if they can do that, they can survive this period, they can cross this hump, then there’s chance for them to start hiring in more significant numbers.”

Productivity also suffered last year in manufacturing and services, outweighing the improvements seen in the construction sector. Overall labour productivity fell by 1.5 per cent - its first drop in at least a decade - when measured as real value-added per actual hour worked.

The ministry said this was in line with the slowdown in economic growth coupled with strong employment growth.

On the other hand, the percentage of residents who found new jobs last year within six months of being retrenched edged up to 64 per cent, from 63 per cent in 2018.

The long-term unemployment rate for residents – Singaporeans and permanent residents – remained at 0.7 per cent last year, unchanged from 2018.

This refers to the share of the resident labour force who were unemployed for at least 25 weeks.

But the quarterly rate, adjusted for seasonal variations, rose over the second half of the year to 0.9 per cent in December, the highest level in at least six years.

Mrs Teo said that the labour market overall performed better than expected last year.

Reiterating a point she made when the preliminary data for the year was released in January, Mrs Teo said unemployment remained within the low range of recent years, employment of locals grew slightly faster than in 2018, and the level of retrenchments stayed stable, even dipping for professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs).

Local employment grew by 28,300 last year, up from 27,400 in the previous year, Thursday’s data showed. The preliminary data had initially shown a fall in local employment growth to 26,500 last year.

Foreign employment, excluding maids, grew by 28,700, up from 10,900 – the difference being mostly due to the increase in construction workers.

 
 
 

Mrs Teo said that the labour market overall performed better than expected last year.

Reiterating a point she made when the preliminary data for the year was released in January, Mrs Teo said unemployment remained within the low range of recent years, employment of locals grew slightly faster than in 2018, and the level of retrenchments went down slightly, even for professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs).

Local employment grew by 28,300 last year, up from 27,400 in the previous year, Thursday’s data showed. The preliminary data had initially shown a fall in local employment to 26,500 last year.

Foreign employment, excluding maids, grew by 28,700, up from 10,900 – the difference being mostly due to the increase in construction workers.

MOM said in a statement yesterday that the outlook for the labour market is expected to be subdued as the overall economic growth is expected to moderate. It grew by 0.7 per cent last year.

“The sharp economic contraction is stressing sectors beyond just hospitality and travel, and recruitment and the whole hiring process have probably been frozen until normal office life resumes,” said Maybank Kim Eng senior economist Chua Hak Bin, adding that the Covid-19 outbreak has disrupted human resources functions and makes it hard to set up interviews and meetings.

Unemployment – which edged up slightly last year – and retrenchments will likely worsen this year, especially in certain sectors such as tourism and hospitality, the economists said.

But OCBC Bank chief economist Selena Ling said the silver lining is the job support announced in the Budget statement last month (Feb) with more help possibly on the way in the second support package which Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Wednesday is being worked on.

“I don’t expect a big spike in overall unemployment rates because there is a big focus on protecting local jobs, and the foreign manpower policy stance is still tight,” she said. But wage growth will probably moderate, she added.

Private-sector economists see the Singapore economy contracting by 0.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2020 from the coronavirus impact, according to a quarterly survey released on Wednesday by the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

The economists also slashed their forecast for full-year growth to 0.6 per cent.

 
 

On Feb 17, the Ministry of Trade and Industry downgraded its economic growth forecast for the year to between -0.5 per cent and 1.5 per cent - indicating a possible recession. Growth is expected to come in at around 0.5 per cent, the mid-point of the forecast range.

Even so, MOM noted that there are pockets of relative strength in the Singapore economy which will continue to provide job opportunities. 

It pointed to the construction sector which has seen a rebound in demand since 2018, and the information and communications sector which is supported by sustained demand for businesses for IT solutions as they continue to restructure and transform.

National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay said in a Facebook post on Thursday that the labour movement stands alongside frontline and healthcare workers during this difficult time. He urged companies and workers including freelancers and the self-employed to leverage on support and training schemes to make the most of any downtime.

The final labour market report out on Thursday updates preliminary statistics released in January.

The full-year unemployment rate edged up to 3.3 per cent last year for Singaporeans, up from 3 per cent in the previous year. The rates were 3.1 per cent for residents, and 2.3 per cent when including foreigners, up from 2.9 per cent and 2.1 per cent respectively.

Total employment, excluding maids, grew by 57,000 last year, up from 38,300 in the previous year. 

Retrenchments per quarter rose over the second half of the year to 2,670 in the fourth quarter. This was higher than the 2,510 in the same quarter in 2018.

But overall retrenchments for the year eased slightly to 10,690, down from 10,730 in 2018. PMETs made up 73.6 per cent of those asked to go last year.

By age, the majority of affected workers last year - 72.3 per cent - were 40 and above.