How a slowing economy affects workers: Many prepare for hard times by improving skills

Some workers are taking on additional jobs to protect themselves against slowdown

The office crowd in the Central Business District (CBD) in Singapore. PHOTO: ST FILE

The economic slowdown has not led to widespread anxiety among workers, but some are concerned enough that they have taken steps to protect themselves against more trying times ahead.

In the face of rising layoffs and fewer job vacancies, brushing up on skills and looking for additional sources of income are some ways workers are trying to cope, observers told The Straits Times.

With layoffs in the first half of the year at the highest level since 2009 and job vacancies falling below the number of job seekers for the first time since 2012, workers have lower bargaining power in the job market.

Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) chief executive Gilbert Tan said there is an increasing trend of employees - both professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) and the rank and file - who are concerned about layoffs and job stability.

"Many are taking courses or considering reskilling or upgrading to better prepare themselves for the slowing economy," he said, adding that e2i has seen about 40 per cent more workers seeking training so far this year, compared with the same period last year.

Popular courses include networking, career planning, interview skills and conflict management.

Over 80,000 Singaporeans used their SkillsFuture credit in the first eight months of this year, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said in a written response to a question by Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh for Monday's Parliament sitting.

Besides learning more skills, some workers are on the lookout for ways to protect their incomes.

Mr Tan said e2i has seen more workers looking for help to take on additional jobs, especially contract or freelance workers or those who receive daily wages.

Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Ang Kin Kee, an assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, said some workers are taking on multiple income streams to ensure they are less susceptible to a slowdown in one area. For instance, a swim coach does wedding photography on the side, while others moonlight as part-time Uber or GrabCar drivers.

People who lose their jobs may take on shorter-term jobs which they are overqualified for while they search for their next position, and this can become a worry if they remain underemployed for a long period of time, observers said.

Feeling underemployed can lead workers to feel demotivated, and underemployment also means the economy is not using resources optimally, said NTUC assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower.

But the phenomenon is hard to measure because there is a lack of good data on skills-based underemployment as it is difficult to define the skills that people hold as well as those actually required for a job, said SIM University labour economist Walter Theseira. For example, not all jobs targeted at degree holders actually need skills acquired at university level, he said.

Maximising career prospects in these uncertain times calls for some effort on workers' part, observers added. They can keep up with trends in their industry and be proactive if it is likely to become a sunset industry in the near future.

Said UOB economist Francis Tan: "Look at industry journals, blogs or websites to understand how your industry is doing not just in Singapore but in other countries which may become growing competitors."

It is also worthwhile to obtain second or third skills in another area and do more networking to know more people, said National University of Singapore Business School senior lecturer Wu Pei Chuan.

Dr Theseira finds that transferable skills like project management, leadership and discipline, rather than employer-specific skills, are key.

These are some of the skills Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan hopes to help residents brush up on. He has asked a residents' committee to organise an event this month on life skills such as resume writing and interview skills.

"We don't have a big crowd of unemployed people, but we want to equip people and make them alert that these are some of the things you need to prepare in case you need to look for a job," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2016, with the headline How a slowing economy affects workers: Many prepare for hard times by improving skills. Subscribe