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Budget Debate Speech by Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister for Manpower, 4 Jun 2020

A.       PREAMBLE

A1.    Mr Speaker, since the last quarter of 2019, before COVID-19 hit, I had described Singapore's job market as experiencing "persistent showers with pockets of sunshine".

A2.    With the evolving COVID-19 situation, the weather has become even more uneven and unpredictable. Clearly, some sectors have experienced a downpour. Others are beginning to brighten up. 

A3.    However, unlike cyclical downturns, with COVID-19, there’s much less visibility about the future.  It’s hard to tell if a bigger storm is brewing, or how long it may last.

B.       GEARING UP FOR THE STORM

B1.    Bad weather is something my husband and I learnt to embrace.  On our travels, we like to go hiking. When we were younger, we used to fret whenever the weather turned bad.  Later, we learnt a saying that is popular among Scandinavians, that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”

B2.    Even with the best of plans, bad weather cannot always be avoided. Instead of being frustrated, we learnt to gear up and be ready to step out in any weather. It’s not just to wander aimlessly, but to try and make our way to where there’s clearer skies, and to get back in the sun.  It takes a lot of effort, but it’s better than to be stuck with nowhere to go.

B3.    That is how I think we can deal with the situation today.  Focus on getting ready for a possible storm, and put all our energies into gearing up.

B4.    Part of the gearing up is the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) and other support programmes under the Unity, Resilience, Solidarity and Fortitude Budgets.  Each of these schemes are helping to cushion the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the labour market.  They are providing much needed cover to businesses and workers, saving jobs and livelihoods. If we did not have this cover, we would already be drenched in soaring unemployment, as can be seen in some countries.  We would be dealing with a very different problem today.

B5.    Instead, we now have a window of opportunity to get organised. This year, we expect the economy to shrink by between 4% to 7%.  We must gear up for further job losses, although we won’t know exactly how severe it will be. Uncertainty about the future will also moderate hiring.

B6.    Besides defending existing jobs, we must try and open up many more pathways to jobs. There is a Chinese idiom 未雨绸缪, it reminds us to plan ahead before the storm hits. This will be critical in the months ahead. 

C.       OPEN UP NEW PATHWAYS TO JOBS

C1.   There will have to be a big push for

a.    Pathways for retrenched and mid-career persons from all sectors;

b.    Pathways for fresh graduates from Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics, universities and other educational institutions;

c.     Pathways for self-employed persons (SEPs) who want to to remain SEPs or to move into regular employment.

C2.   We will need tight coordination to create multiple pathways for a whole range of workers. But where should these pathways lead?

a.    Ideally, the pathways should lead to a job

b.    In today’s context, it may not be an immediate job, or a permanent one

c.     But it should be a path that allows for people to use their time meaningfully, learn something useful and gain valuable experience

d.     As much as possible, it should be a path to a better, brighter future.

C3.   We have a real stake in doing this well

a.    Not only do we want to enable every Singaporean to remain meaningfully occupied, we want to help each citizen to preserve his or her human capital, and to build on it.

b.    Collectively for Singapore, this means not allowing the downturn to erode our human capital, but instead to enhance it so that we can emerge stronger as one.

c.     This is the challenge we should set for ourselves. 

C4.   I need not tell members how enormous this challenge is.  The government as a whole has declared our collective ambition – to generate close to 100,000 opportunities in jobs, traineeships, attachments and skills training through the SGUnited Jobs and Skills package.

C5.   To give members a sense of scale, Workforce Singapore and its partners like e2i and MAS placed an average of 29,000 locals into jobs every year in the last three years. Each of these involves painstaking work. In many cases, there are job-and skills mismatches.  In others, there are mismatches of wage expectations.

C6.   In today’s context, we must add another significant mismatch and it has to do with timing.  Many jobseekers will be hungry for work and school leavers eager to start their careers. But employers will be hesitant and not ready to hire. After all, they themselves may not have enough visibility about their own business. As a result, there will likely be many more jobseekers than jobs available. We must expect many roadblocks on previously well-established pathways to jobs.

C7.   As a millennial might put it, it’s an epic challenge to create pathways for 100,000 people under such circumstances. Recognising the enormity of the task, SM Tharman has described the National Jobs Council (NJC) as a “national team” to rally and mobilise every possible partner to build up a pipeline of such opportunities, catering to multiple sectors and every skill level.

C8.   The target of close to 100,000 opportunities is not insurmountable but the NJC will have to work very hard to create the pathways, involving multiple partners. 

Engaging Employers

C9.   Notwithstanding the challenges, our top most priority is still to promote jobs, and making sure that jobseekers have access to them. The SGUnited Jobs initiative will be scaled up to provide more than 40,000 jobs in 2020.

a.    Many of the permanent positions in the public sector are a result of hiring plans being brought forward. These include science and engineering roles in agencies like HTX, and positions in early childhood education, healthcare and long-term care.

b.    We will also ramp up capacity of career conversion programmes to help jobseekers reskill for new roles in the private sector, such as for Auxiliary Police Officers in the Security sector.

c.     As businesses transform, workers may become redundant. We will work with employers to prepare them for redeployment rather than unemployment.

C10.   In this climate, we should be realistic but also opportunistic. 

a.    Employers may hold back job offers but we can encourage them to offer traineeship or attachment pathways, through meaningful funding support.

b.    These traineeships may not provide the same security as a job, but they will provide valuable industry-relevant experience and better position a jobseeker when the economy recovers.

C11.   For a start, we aim to open up about 25,000 traineeship pathways for recent graduates and mid-career jobseekers. 

a.    We are heartened that more than 1,000 organisations, including many SMEs, have stepped forward to offer to host more than 11,000 trainees.

b.    One example is Carousell, a homegrown tech scale-up. Carousell created a new trainee position for graduates to learn how the company strategises to grow its markets and build customer loyalty. The experience of working in a startup or scale-up culture is certainly useful.

c.     We are also very keen to open up attachment pathways for mid-career jobseekers.  At the first NJC meeting yesterday, there was intense discussion about the potential for such experienced mid-career persons to help businesses transform, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This will supplement the resources of hard-pressed SMEs to build up their capabilities.   More pathways of this type could this be win-win.

C12.   Another important pathway could be through the CET Centres and Institutes of Higher Learning. 

a.    While looking to land a job or attachment pathway, it is useful to acquire new skills through a structured programme. 

b.    Such programmes can have a combination of classroom training and company involvement such as industrial project work.

c.     The SGUnited Skills programme aims to create up to 30,000 such pathways.

Supporting Jobseekers

C13.   To help jobseekers find the most suitable pathway, we will expand our ground presence.

a.    We now have five career centres island-wide and partnerships with NTUC’s e2i, the Social Service Offices, CDCs, Self-Help Groups such as MENDAKI.

b.    To be closer to jobseekers, we aim to build up a presence in all HDB towns, through satellite career centres.

C14.   In any case, not every jobseeker needs to come through WSG’s physical door. This is why we have significantly built up our digital presence and range of digital services on MyCareersFuture.sg.

a.    Even before the circuit breaker, we rolled out a series of thematic Virtual Career Fairs (VCFs) in sectors such as ICT, Logistics & Transport, and Healthcare and Community Care.  We will bring this to the SGUnited Traineeships as well.

C15.   Let me put this plainly.

a.    We will spare no effort to open up new pathways for jobseekers and guide them appropriately. As big a push as we can muster.

b.    But for matches to happen, I urge jobseekers to keep an open mind – stay open to pathways that you would not have considered previously. 

c.     Give the employers a chance and give yourself a chance.

Partnering Organisations

C16.   To extend our reach to more workers and employers, we have been working closely with our tripartite partners, with encouraging results.

a.    When air travel came to a standstill due to COVID-19, NTUC played an instrumental role in kick-starting job redesign projects. Close to 4,000 workers in the Air Transport sector will be reskilled for new roles.

b.    e2i has been working through the NTUC Job Security Council to push out short-term and long-term job opportunities for retrenched workers.

c.     The Singapore Business Federation signed up to be our main programme partner for the SGUnited Traineeships Programme.

C17.    We will reach out and partner more trade associations and chambers to open up the pathways in their respective sectors. These partnerships can include SEP associations like for sports coaches and media freelancers.

D.       CONCLUSION

D1.   Mr Speaker, I said at the start that we should gear up for a storm.  This may sound frightening and indeed, we should not underestimate how rough the weather might become. 

D2.   But we are not going in without some cover.  In fact, there are at least three reasons to be hopeful.

a.    First, for well over a decade, we have invested heavily in our Continuing Education and Training (CET) infrastructure and embarked on the SkillsFuture movement since 2015. We now have a very vibrant CET ecosystem that provides quality training to working adults, which we will continue to strengthen under the Next Bound of SkillsFuture.

b.    Second, even with low visibility, we are not navigating without compasses and searchlights. For several years now, we have developed Industry Transformation Maps and carefully positioned each sector for future growth.  In Financial Services, for example, we know the new skills needed within the next three years for practically every job role there is. That makes for much more effective curation of training and attachment pathways.

c.     Third, and perhaps most important of all, Singapore’s unique brand of tripartism means that even in stormy waters, we can row as one, in unison towards the same destination. In Chinese we would say 风雨同舟, 向前推进. Few other countries have this extraordinary advantage. Working together, we can clear roadblocks and widen existing pathways, and open up new pathways where none existed.  A big push for these pathways will inspire hope and confidence in our people, and keep us moving forward. 

D3.   Mr Speaker, I’m not a particularly big fan of motivational quotes but this one by a certain Vivian Greene struck a chord.  She says poetically,

“Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass but learning to dance in the rain”.

D4.   COVID-19 is a powerful virus that has unleashed a storm worldwide.  But for Singapore, it is igniting something quite remarkable – our unity, our resilience, our solidarity and our fortitude. And along the way if we also learn to dance in the rain, why not?