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Economists say number of SG’s skilled foreign workers may not return to pre-pandemic levels

Resident employment slightly up, bulk of workers laid off foreigners

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Singapore— Singapore may have fewer skilled foreign workers than before, say experts.

Skilled foreign workers may take longer to return to Singapore, and they come back in smaller numbers, than after earlier recessions, the experts add.

CNA reports that economists made these predictions after last week’s release of the Labour Market Report 2020 by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

The MOM report showed that the majority of employees laid off last year — when Singapore suffered the biggest drop in employment in over two decades — were foreigners.

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In fact, resident employment — the number of working citizens and Singapore permanent residents — has risen to “slightly above pre-COVID levels”, the MOM report said, with 14,900 jobs gained.

On the other hand, non-resident workers lost 181,500 jobs last year.

MOM’s statistics show that while the bulk of the foreign workers who lost their jobs last year were in the construction and manufacturing industries, the number of S Pass holders also declined by 26,000 and EP holders by 16,700.

Commenting on this, Dr Chua Hak Bin, Maybank Kim Eng’s regional co-head of macro research, told CNA that this situation may have far-reaching effects.

“Stricter foreign worker measures and border controls will likely impede the hiring of foreign workers, even for the skilled segment. There is a structural element, not just cyclical, as policies shift towards reducing the reliance on foreign labour.”

Employment for skilled foreign workers has become more stringent over the years. The minimum qualifying salary has been raised for both S Pass holders and EP holders.

Dr Chua added, “Hard-hit sectors like aviation and accommodation probably shed more foreign workers, as wage subsidies for retaining locals were especially generous.”

The issue of firms being cautious with hiring during the pandemic was brought up by Mr Monty Sujanani, country manager of recruitment agency Robert Walters Singapore.

“Even before COVID-19, companies have always been focused on hiring Singaporeans first due to the TAFEP regulations though there is now greater opportunity to support local hires, particularly Singaporeans who have been made redundant or retrenched,” he told CNA.

“At the same time, we have also seen a number of expatriates/foreign professionals moving back home, which has created more opportunities for Singaporeans and PRs.”

However, Mr Irvin Seah, DBS senior economist, told CNA that the jobs that foreigners lost in Singapore don’t automatically go to locals, for reasons such as technology making remote work possible.

But he acknowledged that companies are likely to hire residents who may not be fully skilled for the position they offer, and add training into the mix, something that Mr Sujanani of Robert Walters said is already being done.

“Companies will need to hire based on potential rather than with 100 per cent skills that they need because there is a limited pool of talent and it’s better to provide upskilling opportunities on the job for talent to acquire the skill sets they need. This also doubles up as an attraction and retention strategy. More forward-thinking companies are already starting to do this.”

/TISG

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