At the Careers Connect centre of Workforce Singapore in Paya Lebar yesterday (11 Jan), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong assured that amid the upgrading and restructuring of the economy, Singaporeans can be confident that there are programmes in place to help them cope with the changes.

“We have the resources, the plans and the resolve. We will help everybody to get through difficulties. We will help you, walk together with you to overcome these troubles,” he said. The changes Singapore faces are unavoidable, but the way forward is to become more productive, do better jobs and earn better pay, he said.

PM Lee said he was visiting the facility because he wanted to see first hand the work being done to help Singaporeans. He spoke with former jobseekers and their career coaches. “I am very happy to see the enthusiasm here, and that they are seeing some results,” he said.

The Adapt and Grow initiative run by statutory board Workforce Singapore (WSG) provides programmes for Singaporeans to learn new skills and adapt to changing job demands as the economy undergoes restructuring.

PM Lee also said that a lot of progress has been made by his government to help Singaporeans.

“In eight years, our economy has grown, our productivity has gone up, our workers’ wages have gone up, we have kept our unemployment down, and our employment rates have gone up, for the old people particularly, for the women also. So we’ve made a lot of progress.”

But he added, “I don’t think we’ll ever be done. Ten years from now, I’m sure we’ll still be talking about productivity growth and upgrading, but 10 years from now, if we do our work right, we’ll be in a stronger position than we are today.”

Percentage of new grads finding a full-time job 6 months after exams declining

However, even as PM Lee talked about the employment rates in Singapore going up, annual surveys of graduates from our tertiary institutions show that the percentage of new graduates finding a full-time job in 6 months after their exams has been declining considerably over the years.

In 2017, only 78.4 per cent of NUS, NTU and SMU graduates managed to secure full-time permanent employment six months after their final exams. This figure was the lowest in 10 years, down from 89.8 per cent in 2007.

And for those graduates studying humanities or some science courses such as chemistry, the figure dropped further – only 50-60 per cent found full-time jobs six months after their final exams.

For the graduates from private schools offering university degrees, the drop was even more drastic, with the full-time permanent employment rate falling to 47.4 per cent in 2017 from 60.1 per cent in 2016.

Chris Lim, 26, is an SMU student graduated with a Business Management degree in Dec 2016. He didn’t expect it would take him 10 months to find his first full-time job. In the 10 months, he sent out some 70 application letters only to get less than 10 interviews.

Underemployment in Singapore

Even with an expanding economy and unemployment said to be low in Singapore by PM Lee, regional CIO at UBS Wealth Management, Kelvin Tay, noted that Singapore’s robust economic growth and low unemployment rate have masked the underemployment situation in Singapore. It had been a jobless recovery, he told the media in an interview last year.

He said that jobs creation had actually been “very, very mild”. “We have some slack in the economy because not everyone is gainfully employed. The underemployment issue is still an issue where the economy is concerned,” he said.

Many HR experts have highlighted that the official unemployment rate has its limitations in reflecting the actual employment situation in Singapore. For one, the statistic doesn’t distinguish between full-time or part-time employment. It also doesn’t account for people who are underemployed, or working in jobs they are overqualified (and underpaid) for, whether by choice or circumstance.

For example, a PMET driving a Grab car would be considered “fully” employed, even though he may be “overqualified” for the job. The unemployment figure doesn’t show just how many have become so discouraged that they give up hope of finding full-time jobs and end up driving Grab or taxi.

Job competitions from “Foreign Talents”

A human resource specialist whom TOC spoke with shared that many companies would opt to hire Employment Pass holders if they could instead of locals because of the CPF component of the locals and the foreign workers would hardly complain if they were mistreated because of the desire to continue stay-on in Singapore to earn to pay off their debts or to save up and return back home.

Indeed, with the government’s “open door” policy, even if a Singaporean has gone through WSG’s job upgrading programmes, he would still face stiff job competitions from foreign workers. For the sake of profitability, companies could replace Singaporean workers with foreigners.

Take for example, a company called Prime Gold International Pte Ltd was caught retrenching Singaporeans deliberately and having them replaced by foreign workers.

Some 13 Singaporean workers which included captains, chief officers, chief engineers, greasers and seamen complained to MOM when they were being replaced en masse in phases. Their positions were all taken up by foreigners quietly.

In its defence, Prime Gold International claimed that the Singaporean employees were retrenched due to “job redundancy”. The company also pointed to the “unsatisfactory work performance” of the Singaporean workers.

After investigation, MOM found the reasons given by Prime Gold International unsubstantiated. MOM merely curbed the work pass privileges of the company for 2 years, for its discrimination against Singaporean workers.

Hence, with more Singaporeans underemployed as well as replaced by foreigners, it’s now known how Singaporeans can be “confident” of PM Lee’s WSG programmes.

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