From The Gallery

Hard slog to help those laid off, and firms grow

Trust down-to-earth Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say to say it as it is: Many workers fear that the Future Economy will leave them not better off, but worse off.

That cannot be so, and the hard slog of ensuring it is not so is under way, he said in response to MPs' concerns about retrenched professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), and gig-economy workers.

During the debate on his ministry's budget yesterday, Mr Lim noted growing concern over job opportunities and job security.

Retrenchments were up last year, to their highest level since the global financial crisis in 2009. Unemployment, though low, also crept up to 3 per cent for citizens and permanent residents.

Said Mr Lim: "As we transform, some may wonder: What will the Future Economy bring us? Will more workers be displaced by technology... Will more jobs go to foreigners? Will the rise of the digital and gig economy... result in more freelancing? In short, will we have enough jobs, enough good jobs? Or will more workers be hit by unemployment, underemployment or structural unemployment?"

He added: "The purpose of us transforming towards our future economy is to improve our jobs, our careers, our lives, not to make them worse."

There is, however, no easy way to help retrenched workers secure new jobs. For as labour MP Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC) pointed out, there are often mismatches of skills, expectations and jobs to be overcome.

Those who have been jobless for six months or more are in greatest need, but the work of helping them is labour intensive and time consuming , and impossible to automate.

"Helping the long-term unemployed requires a case- management approach," he said. "We need to adopt a one-to-one or one-to-few approach and not a one-to-many approach unlike traditional job placements... These long-term unemployed require more than just counselling or being notified of career fairs or job openings. They require peer support, mentoring and coaching."

At the national level, there is also no one-size-fits-all solution to the jobs challenge.

The multilevel, multisectoral and multidimensional nature of this problem came through in MPs' speeches, which highlighted problems faced by young and old PMETs, gig-economy freelancers and even women workers.

The Government has, in recent years, rolled out a slew of schemes to help older jobseekers - from training and wage subsidies to job placements and, now, job attachments.

But implementing these schemes is a hard slog because every business sector is different, and every worker is unique - not only in terms of skills and adaptability but also in his personal circumstances.

And it was on this that Mr Lim became emotional when speaking about a woman who was not only a single parent to two children, with an aged mother to support, but who also had a brain tumour.

And yet, she managed to persevere with a Professional Conversion Programme that enabled her to make the switch from the property sector to the healthcare sector, where she now works as a clinic assistant.

The need for tailored help extends beyond workers to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which employ the bulk of the local workforce.

During the debate on the budget for the Communications and Information Ministry, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim announced the roll-out of a programme called SMEs Go Digital. The Info-communications Media Development Authority will provide customised help to SMEs, from funding and consultancy to pre-qualifying tech products. The Government has set aside $80 million over four years for the programme.

While Dr Yaacob assured SMEs they would receive "step-by-step advice" on their technology needs, Mr Lim urged workers not to view technology as a threat to their jobs but as a tool to learn and exploit, so they and their employers can better compete on the world stage.

Besides PMETs, the other group of workers championed by MPs were gig-economy freelancers.

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) called for parties entering into a contract for service to make Central Provident Fund contributions. There should also be a marketplace for gig workers to access pooled medical coverage and job matching, a special SkillsFuture track for these workers, and steps to stop tax leakage due to informal work arrangements, she added.

Mr Lim said a tripartite group will be set up to look at how best to address freelancers' concerns.

The reality is that an economy restructuring amid global uncertainty is bound to disrupt workers' lives in big and small ways.

Yesterday's debate showed that the Manpower Ministry stands ready to help, though success will also depend on workers being willing to help themselves.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2017, with the headline 'Hard slog to help those laid off, and firms grow'. Print Edition | Subscribe