Freelance jobs in Singapore on the rise

Experts point to the changing demands of firms, shift in workers' mindsets, technology

Jason Wang says freelancers need to be versatile and take on a variety of jobs in order to make a living from project-based work. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

As the freelance economy continues to grow, the results of a recent Graduate Employment Survey bear this trend out - a higher proportion of people are taking on temporary jobs, instead of permanent full-time ones, after finishing university.

The survey, released last week, showed that of the 89.7 per cent who found work within six months of finishing their examinations, 80.2 per cent secured permanent full-time jobs, lower than 2015's 83.1 per cent.

The survey polled 10,904 fresh graduates from National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and Singapore Management University last year.

The increase in freelance and part-time jobs may seem more obvious among graduates from courses in the arts and humanities, but other fields are not exempt.

While the overall employment rate for NTU's art, design and media graduates hovered around 80 per cent from 2014 to last year, their full-time permanent employment rate dropped from 68 per cent in 2014 to 46.6 per cent last year. Meanwhile, 77.1 per cent of NTU business graduates found permanent full-time jobs last year - this number was 80.2 per cent in 2014.

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said on Feb 7 in Parliament that although the overall percentage of people whose primary work is freelancing has remained stable, their numbers could be growing in sectors like private-hire car services.

He said there were about 180,000 primary freelancers as of last June - some 8 per cent of Singapore's working residents.

Experts who spoke to The Sunday Times expect the trend of non-permanent employment to continue, at least in the short term. They point to factors such as changing demands from companies and a shift in employees' mindsets.

Technology has also enabled the rise of a freelance economy. A similar term, the gig economy, was coined during the financial crisis in 2009, when the unemployed made a living by working "gigs", or part-time jobs to make ends meet.

Last October, Forbes magazine reported that freelancers made up 35 per cent of workers in the United States. The US' freelance workforce grew from 53 million in 2014 to 55 million last year, said the study.


Recruitment company Kelly Services Singapore's managing director Foo See Yang said alternative arrangements such as contract work allow companies some degree of flexibility to adapt to changing staffing needs, to remain agile in an uncertain economic environment.

He added that between 2012 and last year, the firm saw a two-fold increase in the number of new contract placements, with the average contract duration being around one year. The increasing trend, he said, was in contract work across government, healthcare, IT and logistics sectors.

Mr Kek Sei Wee, chief executive of online platform for IT professionals IoTalents, said although freelancers and those on contracts have largely served the IT sector, the trend is moving "up the value chain" with more professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) taking up such jobs.

He said that some companies, particularly fresh start-ups, hire freelancers as they cannot afford to hire such employees on a full-time or permanent basis.


Beyond companies' demands, there seems to be a shift in workers' mindsets as well.

Employees today tend to job hop, with their tenure getting shorter, said Mr Kek, from his experience speaking to hirers. And even when they land full-time work, they start looking for other jobs the moment a project is done.

Mr Foo said freelance arrangements have become more acceptable to employees because of "an increasing preference for flexibility, and a desire for a greater sense of control in managing one's own career development".

After just one year, Mr Calvin Tan, 27, left his full-time job as a web designer after graduating in 2014 from the University of the Arts London. He is now part of a team working on a documentary project, while juggling other gigs.


SIM University economist Walter Theseira said that because of technology, tasks can now be distributed to freelancers at low cost and their completion and quality verified automatically.

"These solve the information and control problems that used to require having workers under direct day-to-day control," he said.

Labour MP Ang Hin Kee said that technology, such as job-matching apps, gives companies "immediate access to sizing up whether or not" a worker's skills match their needs.

He said this also allows workers to try out gigs on the side, deciding if it is viable or sustainable before embarking on them permanently, instead of making an immediate switch to freelancing.

But Dr Theseira said: "Most production of goods and services still takes place through traditional firms and employment arrangements."

"Permanent staff offer a level of commitment and institutional knowledge that can't be found from contractors."


The biggest problem with freelancing is that workers fall outside the employment protection and social safety net framework, said Dr Theseira.

"They often don't contribute to CPF (Central Provident Fund), and they are not protected by having entitlement to annual leave, medical benefits and so on," he said. "This means they are very vulnerable to income and job loss if they fall sick or if other emergencies come up."

While he believes that policy should respond to this, he said if firms are required to provide such benefits to freelancers, business costs will increase and this will reduce take-home wages.

There is also the concern that freelance arrangements may end up suppressing wages.

At the same sitting, Members of Parliament quizzed Mr Lim on the impact of freelancers on wages and support for these workers including financial planning.

Mr Lim said the Manpower Ministry initiated a new annual survey, starting in September last year, to gather more in-depth statistics on the changes in the freelancing landscape. "This will help us better understand the profiles of freelancers, including whether they take up freelancing as a primary or secondary source of income, as well as the sectors and occupations they are in," he said.

He added that based on initial findings from the first survey, the number of primary freelancers did not increase significantly.

"Any increase might have come mainly from the secondary freelancers. In other words, with the growth of the sharing economy, workers who have their primary employment are now taking advantage of sharing platforms to earn additional income, which may not be a bad thing," said Mr Lim.

SIM University labour economist Randolph Tan said these freelance workers will need protection.

But he cautioned: "Too much regulation will remove the flexibility that is an intrinsic feature in freelance and temporary work arrangements. But basic benefits... cannot be ignored if the proportion of the workforce taking up freelance and temporary work grows."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 26, 2017, with the headline Freelance jobs in Singapore on the rise. Subscribe