Job growth hits 17-year low, but real wages up 7%

Tight labour market and low unemployment push up median incomes, says MOM

Singapore saw local employment grow at its slowest pace last year since 1998. PHOTO: ST FILE

Faced with slowdowns in global demand and local labour supply, Singapore saw local employment grow at its slowest pace last year since 1998 amid the Asian financial crisis.

The expansion almost came to a halt. Just 100 more citizens and permanent residents were in jobs at the end of last year compared with the year before, although unemployment remained low, said the Manpower Ministry (MOM) yesterday.

But citizens who were in jobs enjoyed higher pay, as the labour market tightness and manpower shortages in some industries helped push up median incomes last year.

Median income, including employer Central Provident Fund contributions, for Singaporeans working full-time grew 6.5 per cent from June 2014 to June last year to reach $3,798. The growth was 7 per cent after adjusting for negative inflation of 0.5 per cent.

Overall, employment grew by 31,800, the slowest pace in 12 years. This brought the total number of people in jobs here to 3,655,600 as of last month, based on preliminary labour market data for last year.

DBS economist Irvin Seah said the sharper slowdown in local employment growth is probably because residents tend to be in white collar jobs, which are more vulnerable to external shocks than the foreigner-heavy blue collar jobs.

But most of those who wanted to work were able to - the overall unemployment rate remained low at 1.9 per cent last year, down from 2 per cent in 2014. That for citizens was unchanged at 2.9 per cent.

That is why Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said the situation now is very different from 2009, when a drop in employment growth was accompanied by a sharp uptick in unemployment due to a lack of jobs. "I don't call it a downturn yet... One thing is certain, as we go through this period of uncertainty, we must come out to be more manpower-lean; we must come out to be more productive."

Manufacturing shed workers for a second year running, ending with 22,400 fewer workers than it started with. Its output was 5.2 per cent lower last year than in 2014.

More workers lost their jobs last year, especially in the manufacturing and service sectors, which saw 5,000 and 7,800 redundancies respectively. A total of 14,400 workers were let go last year, up from 12,930 in 2014, continuing a steady rise since 2010.

Meanwhile, over the past five years, real income growth at both the middle and bottom 20 per cent of the wage ladder kept pace with each other, growing by an average of 3 per cent and 2.9 per cent per year respectively.

The healthy income growth and low unemployment suggest the labour market has yet to react to economic weaknesses, said SIM University economist Randolph Tan. "We may have to brace ourselves... Income growth slowing and unemployment rising would be hard to handle in our current situation when we're still going through restructuring."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2016, with the headline Job growth hits 17-year low, but real wages up 7%. Subscribe