Barely a third of Singapore population have professional jobs

According to official figures, Singapore has a population of around 5.7 million in 2019 – densely packing roughly 0.08% of the world’s population on a tiny island state of 721.5 square kilometres. But the latest statistics released by Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo show only 1.7 million are gainfully employed in professional jobs – with over 400,000 being expatriates.

The trend for employed persons aged 15 years and older, as shown from 2010 to 2019 (June), points to the number of expatriates almost doubling in 10 years, with the number of Singaporeans employed in professional posts just matching the overall increase in expatriates.

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But with the ongoing economic fallout of the novel coronavirus pandemic,  thousands of jobs in Singapore may go in next 6 months, say experts – who note workers have so far been sheltered from the full impact of pandemic by substantial government support.

As there is a limit to what the government can do to cushion the weakening job market, observers expect tens of thousands of jobs here to be cut within the next half a year, when the full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will be felt.

Their views echoed those of Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who in a ministerial statement on Aug 17 said that retrenchments will be inevitable despite the Government’s best efforts.

Aviation, tourism, retail, hospitality, entertainment, food and beverage, marine and offshore, and construction will be hit hard.

What does this mean for foreign talent – expats who are currently in Singapore and those who are still considering their options?

The conversation on local and foreign talent in Singapore is not a recent one, but recent events have fanned the flame on the discussions on different social media platforms.

Along with rising unemployment rates come uncertain and bleak work prospects, particularly for expats as Minister Teo underlined that Singaporean businesses need to employ, specifically to promote the hiring of local talent before looking to the foreign talent pool.

On 5 Aug 2020, the Manpower Ministry (MoM) released a statement announcing that 47 companies – including fund managers, consulting firms and banks – were placed on a Fair Consideration Framework watchlist for alleged discriminatory hiring practices that prioritized foreign applicants. MOM also noted that a further 240 companies were also being observed for similarly suspicious hiring methods.

Meanwhile, National University of Singapore senior economics lecturer Kelvin Seah said: “Nobody knows how long (the pandemic) will last. There is too much uncertainty. It will depend on whether countries are able to contain the virus effectively.”

Seah noted that layoffs typically do not happen right after businesses see a fall in their profits. “Although businesses might be losing money, they may still try to retain workers,” he added. “If profits continue to fall for a sustained period, then companies have little choice but to lay off workers. Some of these businesses may not even survive themselves.”

When firms in key sectors like aviation and tourism fare poorly, “there will be a domino effect since these people suffer a fall in incomes”.

Gilbert Tan, chief executive of NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute, which offers training and job matching for Singaporeans who have lost their jobs, said it will continue to hold job fairs to offer opportunities to those affected.

Singapore Human Resources Institute president Low Peck Kem advised workers to quickly bounce back if they can, including taking on gig work or reaching out to different industries.

“The longer you stay unemployed, the more difficult it is to go back to the workforce.”

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