Tough job market amid brighter signs for economy

Those out of work taking longer to find jobs, though 2017 economy expected to grow 2.3%

The office crowd in the Central Business District. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

There are good prospects flagged for the economy, but less so for the job market, as Singapore enters a tricky phase of growth.

The slowing economy has been taking its toll on job seekers, with those out of work taking longer to find jobs, data released by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) yesterday showed. Nor is the job market expected to get any easier this year.

In contrast, private-sector economists are now far more bullish about Singapore's economy than they were three months ago.

The local economy is expected to expand 2.3 per cent this year, according to the latest quarterly survey of economists by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). That is a healthier rate than the 1.5 per cent median forecast in December.

The 23 economists responding to the latest survey see manufacturing powering ahead by 4.5 per cent this year, far more optimistic than their 1.1 per cent estimate in December.

This, however, will not necessarily translate into more jobs. "While the near-term growth outlook for manufacturing has improved, the hiring outlook for 2017 remains cautious, as performance is likely to be uneven across clusters," MOM said.

Its data showed that employment growth slowed last year and the struggle to find new jobs was even harder for older workers, degree holders and PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) who get laid off. In all, some 19,170 people were laid off last year. Around half managed to find new jobs, but the rate of re-entry was lowest for those aged 50 or older (40 per cent), degree holders (42 per cent) and PMETs (44 per cent).

The first two groups were also at the receiving end of the rising long-term unemployment rate - the proportion of residents who could not find a job for 25 weeks or more.

This has risen to 0.8 per cent - the highest in seven years - and was even higher, at 1 per cent, for those aged 50 and older, and for those with a degree.

There were fewer job vacancies to go around too - around 77 for every 100 job seekers. The total number of vacancies in December fell to 47,600 - a four-year low.

Total employment expanded by 8,600 workers last year, excluding maids, and the ministry has indicated that such modest expansion could be the norm. It does not expect a return to the early part of the decade, when 120,000 workers were added on average each year.

One bright spot was that productivity rose by 1.4 per cent last year, up from 1 per cent in 2015.

"Businesses should press on with transformation efforts so that they can continue to grow in a... manpower-lean environment," said MOM.

Growth could indeed be on the cards. DBS economist Irvin Seah has forecast a strong 2.8 per cent full-year growth for the economy.

"We are seeing strength in the United States recovery and stabilisation in the Chinese economy. This has manifested in the significantly stronger manufacturing performance, particularly in the electronics cluster," he told The Straits Times.

Singapore's trade figures have turned positive. In January, total non-oil domestic exports surged 8.6 per cent, backing up two previous months of growth. Electronics exports rose by 6.1 per cent, accelerating from December's 5.7 per cent.

Export momentum is set to continue, with the latest MAS survey showing a median forecast of 6.1 per cent growth - well above the 0.3 per cent previous estimate.

But economists still expect the labour market pains to stretch on.

"With unemployment partly structural, improvements in external demand - even if sustained - may take longer to filter through to the jobs market," said Citi economist Kit Wei Zheng.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2017, with the headline Tough job market amid brighter signs for economy. Subscribe