Manpower Minister Josephine Teo on higher unemployment rate: Jobseekers not having the skills

The Manpower Ministry released the Labour Market Report Advance Release for Q3 2019 yesterday (24 Oct). Latest data shows that even though growth of total employment was higher, the number of retrenchments rose over the quarter with unemployment rates inching up.

Total employment (excluding Foreign Domestic Workers) grew by 22,400 in 3Q of 2019, higher than in the previous quarter (6,200) and a year ago (16,700). Retrenchments, however, rose in manufacturing, construction and services over the quarter.

The seasonally adjusted overall unemployment rate has now increased over the quarter, from 2.2 to 2.3%. For Singaporeans, the unemployment rate was even higher rising from 3.2 to 3.3% over the quarter.

After the report was released, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo wrote on her Facebook page commenting that the widening mismatch of higher employment growth with bigger unemployment rates could be due to jobseekers not having the skills. She added that it could also be due to jobs being “insufficiently attractive”.

She said, “Preliminary data painted a mixed picture. Total employment growth was higher than the previous quarter and a year ago. But unemployment and retrenchments also inched up. Employment growth was fairly broad-based led by sectors such as Community, Social & Personal Services, Professional Services, and Information & Communications. Many vacancies remain.”

“This suggests that mismatches are widening. It could be jobseekers not having the skills to access available jobs, or jobs being insufficiently attractive. Closing the gaps require both jobseekers and employers to be more open and flexible,” she added.

“Some training and adjustment may be needed.”

She went on to recommend jobseekers get help from Workforce Singapore (WSG), a statutory board under her ministry. She said, “What’s heartening is that thousands of jobseekers each year successfully make the transition with WSG’s help.”

Under the Professional Conversion Programmes of WSG, training and salary support for companies are available.

She also shared that employers in Singapore are increasingly “willing to train and take in mid-career candidates”.

Employment of foreign PMETs going up

Even as Ms Teo attributes the higher Singapore unemployment rates to “jobseekers not having the skills”, her ministry continues to issue work passes for foreign PMETs to work in Singapore:

Some companies even tried to circumvent the Jobs Bank so as to hire foreigners. Companies are supposed to put up job advertisements on Jobs Bank for 14 days to let the locals have a chance to apply before they can hire any foreign PMETs for the jobs.

Many companies would advertise on Jobs Bank to “wayang” and give the excuse that the Singaporean applicants cannot meet their requirements. For example, the following posting was found on Singapore Expats Forum.

Apparently, a company had already offered a job to a foreigner. However, the company told him to wait as they had to first post the job advertisement on Jobs Bank for 14 days.

Then for the next 10 days, the foreigner did not see the said advertisement on Jobs Bank and began to panic. He then wrote to Singapore Expats Forum to seek advice.

In this particular case, one has to ask how and why the company selected the foreigner for the job even before putting up the advertisement in Jobs Bank.

Singaporean PMETs driving Grab

Despite having government schemes like the Professional Conversion Programmes (PCP) which Ms Teo mentioned, many retrenched Singaporean PMETs continue to struggle finding a job. Some who were saddled with mortgage loans sold their house and downgraded to a smaller unit.

And some who couldn’t get a job after searching for a long time resorted to driving Grab and taxi so as to make ends meet. Shaun Ow, 39, was working in the private sector for some 11 years in various industries before he was retrenched 4-5 years ago. He then tried to find a job for more than a year before giving up. He ended up driving Grab to feed his family.

He told the media that he has been a private hire car driver for the last three-and-a-half years and manages to earn about $5,000 a month after accounting for all the charges. But he has to work very hard, driving everyday for 12 to 14 hours non-stop. On average, he would be making 20 to 25 trips daily and hardly has any time for his family. Also, after having started driving a Grab, it would be difficult for the person to get back into the industry as his resume would show a large gap in his career.

Prof Walter Theseira, a Nominated MP and an economist at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), noted, “Workers in such jobs will inevitably end up disadvantaged compared to their peers who are able to stay in jobs that offer a career path and the opportunity to build marketable skills.”

At the recent Singapore Bicentennial Conference (1 Oct), the former Singapore’s UN Permanent Representative Professor Tommy Koh also noticed the trend of displaced Singaporeans becoming Grab drivers.

He advised the 4th generation PAP leaders to look into allegations of discriminatory hiring practices and working to make Singapore a classless society. “We should not abandon the displaced workers because we don’t want more and more Singaporeans to become Grab drivers or, worse, to join the ranks of the angry voters,” Prof Koh said.

“Remember this: It was the angry voters who helped to elect President (Donald) Trump in the United States. It was the angry voters in the United Kingdom who voted to leave the European Union.”