Proportion of PMET retrenchment hits all-time high as number of foreigners on S-Pass increases

In the latest labour marker report released by Manpower Ministry (MOM) yesterday (15 Mar), it revealed that PMETs had accounted for a staggering 79.3% of retrenched residents in the 4th quarter of last year.

This brings the total figure for retrenched local Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMET) to 75.8% of all retrenchments for 2018, a record level since such data was first published by MOM in 2006. In 2017, it was 72%.

Some 58% of retrenched residents had degrees, while 19.9% held diplomas. The bulk of the individuals who were retrenched were aged 40 to 49 (34%) and 50 and over (33.6%).

MOM said this is because the industries shedding workers tend to be dominated by PMETs.

“If you look at the various major layoffs last year, many are in the executive and technician roles,” NTUC secretary-general Patrick Tay said.

Observers said PMETs are becoming the new vulnerable group and more needs to be done to mitigate the risk of them being displaced.

DBS senior economist Irvin Seah suggested raising the minimum qualifying salary for Employment Pass holders and increasing the length of time firms must advertise jobs on the national jobs portal before they can apply to hire a foreign professional. This would minimise the chances of companies substituting local PMETs with foreign ones, he said.

Number of S-Pass holders increases

Meanwhile, it was also reported that foreign S-Pass holders grew by 11,100, across all sectors.

“The increase was led by the Services sector, with the highest growth seen in Administrative & Support Services, Food Services, Information & Communications, Professional Services, and Transportation & Storage,” MOM said.

Even though figures by MOM shows that local employment does seem to have improved, however, bear in mind that Singapore’s 6.9 million population white paper – target conversion of 20,000 new citizens and 30,000 Permanent Residents per year – is still in force. This means that many of the former foreign workers are now PRs or new citizens counting as the employed residents figures.

Higher value-added PMETs sought for

While the government recently has announced the cutting back on S-Pass quotas, Minister of Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said just last year that the Government wants to encourage a shift towards employing more higher value-added foreign workers (i.e, foreign PMETs).

Noting that raising the skill level of foreigners in Singapore is a knotty issue – Singaporeans worry it would intensify competition for good jobs, Chan said that the answer is to ensure locals are quality workers, too. “We cannot dumb everybody down, right? That’s why we work so hard to move our people up.”

Some of the “higher value-added” foreign PMETs identified are those in IT, wealth management and biotechnology areas. Chan hopes these FTs would help boost Singapore’s capabilities in those areas.

At the same time, companies here which employ such foreign professionals should help transfer expertise to locals, he said. “I’ve no problem employing the high-skilled foreigners to come here – we have done that ever since the 1960s – but there must be a process of localisation whereby my own domestic workers, my own local workforce, can progress,” he added.

When asked about the balance of foreign vs local workers in Singapore, he said, “There’s no magic number but where we are at the balancing point now is about one-third (foreigners), two-thirds (locals).”

Josephine Teo and MAS MD also want Singapore to have more foreign PMETs

Separately, second Manpower Minister Josephine Teo also wanted to have more foreigners working here.

It is possible to maintain flat employment levels, with no increase in the number of locals or foreigners, but that may not be ideal, she said. Realistically, the workforce needs a little bit of growth to support “enterprise activity”, she added.

“The more you are able to do productivity-driven growth, the less dependent you are on manpower growth, which works to our advantage,” she said.

In Jan 2018, Managing Director of Monetary Authority of Singapore, Ravi Menon gave a speech at an IPS conference highlighting the need for Singapore to hire more foreign PMETs.

“There is scope to improve the quality of the foreign workforce,” he said.

“The trend of improving quality in our foreign workforce has already begun,” he commented. “The proportion of work permit holders has declined by about 10 percentage points over last 10 years, while the proportion of S-Pass and employment pass holders has increased by around 10 percentage points.”

And he wants this trend, that is, the hiring of more foreign PMETS, to continue as “we restructure our economy towards higher value-added activities, seek deeper skills, and undertake more pervasive digitalisation”. He argued that there must be some flexibility in the local-to-foreigner ratio to “match economic cycles, changing circumstances and opportunities”.

Ms Teo agreed, “If the only way in which businesses can grow is by taking employees from other businesses, there will be more friction. So you have to allow for a little bit of growth.” That is, she meant changing the rules to allow for “a little bit” of growth in foreign PMET population.

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