Singapore must create good jobs and transform them to help workers' career aspirations: Josephine Teo

Mrs Josephine Teo said that amid challenging times ahead, the Singapore way is to find opportunity in every adversity.
Mrs Josephine Teo said that amid challenging times ahead, the Singapore way is to find opportunity in every adversity.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The job market will be challenging in the months and years ahead, but Singaporeans will be able to progress in their careers so long as the country can do two things consistently well, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo on Saturday (July 27).

These are creating good jobs and transforming them to keep up with industry needs and workers' aspirations, she said, in a speech outlining the approach of the country's fourth-generation (4G) leadership in the short, medium and long term to ensure all Singaporeans get the help they need to navigate economic restructuring and benefit from good jobs.

In the short term, if Singapore faces a general downturn, the response will depend on whether the causes are cyclical, structural, or both, as well as whether the impact is broad-based or sectoral, shallow or deep, she said.

But a downturn on the scale and scope of the one caused by the global financial crisis in 2008/2009 appears very unlikely, she said. Also, Singapore's economy today is well diversified, more so than a decade ago, and while some sectors like electronics have weakened, others like information and communications are holding up well.

"For now, we should keep a close watch over the economy. At the same time, keep sharpening our competitiveness and grow where we can," she said.

She was speaking at an event to show appreciation to career coaches and jobseekers who found jobs through the Government’s Adapt and Grow programmes which help people do better in their careers.

Mrs Teo's comments come after preliminary data released on Friday showed that unemployment for Singaporeans rose and employment growth slowed in the second quarter of this year, though retrenchments dipped. Employers are more cautious in hiring.

Still, job matching efforts are bearing fruit. Mrs Teo said that in the first half of this year, about 18,000 jobseekers secured jobs through the Adapt and Grow programmes as well as career matching services by Workforce Singapore (WSG) and the National Trades Union Congress’ Employment and Employability Institute (e2i).

This is about nine per cent more than those helped in the first half of last year, she said, adding that over six in 10 of those placed in the first half of this year were previously unemployed.

Mrs Teo also said that while the pool of career coaches in WSG and e2i has remained at around 120 over the years, placements grew more than 40 per cent between 2016 and 2018.

Medium-term challenges

In the medium term, Mrs Teo said demographic and technology trends pose a threat to jobs and employment.

Of the 10 Asean member states, five, including Singapore, have seen their total fertility rate fall below replacement levels, she said. The population of seniors here is also growing rapidly, while the prime working age population is stable, through a calibrated pace of immigration.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and several 4G ministers will speak on marriage and parenthood and the ageing population in the coming weeks, added Mrs Teo.

As for technology, there is a worry around the world that automation and artificial intelligence will replace human workers, but for Singapore, "there are actually many more upsides than downsides", she said, addressing more than 120 people at the event at the Grand Hyatt.

This is because the economy creates many more jobs than there are people to do them, with a total workforce of 3.5 million and a local workforce of just 2.3 million.

While pushing businesses to improve productivity through technology, the Government must also help workers gain mastery in their jobs by using technology, so that they need not fear it but embrace it, said Mrs Teo.

Strategy for the long term

In the long term, the Government is working to help Singaporeans achieve career mobility, so that people can choose different pathways as their needs evolve, said Mrs Teo.

"Tomorrow's workers are not looking for jobs just to put food on the table. Many more want careers that engage their imagination and energies, giving them meaning and purpose," she added.

Job creation remains reasonably strong, with more jobs than job seekers most of the time.

But it will take hard work to continue attracting local and foreign companies to base operations here to provide jobs, she said, adding that politics here "must not cause investors to lose confidence, because it will be ordinary workers that pay the price, not politicians".

The jobs must be of good quality, too, but employers sometimes need a push to upgrade jobs.

"A little tightness (in the labour market) is necessary and why we sometimes have to make unpopular policy adjustments, such as moderating access to foreign manpower in some sectors," she said, noting however that there is support for companies that make the effort to improve jobs, as well as for job seekers to gain the skills to move into vacancies.

Besides creating quality jobs, employers must transform jobs continuously so that workers can contribute more meaningfully, said Mrs Teo.

For example, central kitchens now use auto-fryers which relieve aching shoulders and free up cooks to focus on food quality, and flexible work arrangements cater to staff who would otherwise stop work to fulfil caregiving duties, she said.

And as jobs are transformed, this creates a healthy demand for skills to be upgraded, she added.

Singapore's unique tripartite cooperation between the Government, employers and unions will allow it to implement its strategies for jobs and skills transformation well.

Government agencies need to coordinate closely with one another, while trade associations and chambers must help design road maps and effectively guide their enterprise members, and the labour movement needs to galvanise workers and help them adapt.

For example, the tripartite Future Economy Council led by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat is overseeing the implementation of the industry transformation maps, which have been refined and executed by government agencies, firms and unions.

Unions are also working with employers through company training committees to help reskill workers to support restructuring.

"This will save workers from potential redundancy, while boosting the likelihood that business plans succeed," said Mrs Teo.

She noted that today's job situation "can hardly be described as a crisis".

But amid challenging times ahead, the Singapore way is to find opportunity in every adversity.

"When it comes to jobs and skills, we have a window of opportunity to move ahead while others are still getting organised."

"We have already started. Our Singapore way must be to work together to open up this lead," she said.