The labour market is entering a period of slower growth, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say yesterday.
The decline will likely continue, and employment growth may even reach "negligible" levels, he said.
His comments came after preliminary statistics showed that just 100 more citizens and permanent residents were in jobs last year compared with 2014. It was the lowest local employment growth since 1998 amid the Asian financial crisis.
Overall, employment grew by just 31,800 last year, the slowest pace in 12 years. "We are entering into a period of uncertainty," said a sombre Mr Lim at a media briefing.
He acknowledged that the slowing employment growth can be a bottleneck to economic growth, but added that firms have to learn to cope with this.
Citing the hotel sector as an example, Mr Lim said there are 20 per cent to 25 per cent more hotel rooms being built. "But we cannot support that growth by taking on 20 to 25 per cent more workers."
Some belt tightening is inevitable and companies have to reduce their reliance on workers by raising productivity.
To drive home the point, an animated Mr Lim pointed to his own belt and said: "If I keep tightening my belt... will my belt become a bottleneck? It depends on whether I become slimmer."
Foreign manpower growth will be capped at around 2 per cent while local manpower growth - estimated to be about 1 per cent annually until 2020 - will come from attracting and keeping more locals in the workforce, Mr Lim said.
The labour force participation rate for Singaporeans and PRs was 68.3 per cent last year, rising from 65 per cent in 2006. "There is still scope for the labour force participation rate to go up," said Mr Lim.
The steps include attracting women back to the workforce and raising the re-employment age for older workers to 67.
Mr Lim said that there is near full employment and workers will continue to benefit from the tight labour market. "People who want to work are still able to get jobs," he noted. "And salaries are up."