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Speech at Adapt and Grow Appreciation Event

Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo, Grand Hyatt

Appreciating our coaches and jobseekers

  1. Thank you everyone for coming today.


  2. This is only the second time we are holding such an event. A year ago, I initiated it because I was very moved by the stories of jobseekers and coaches who worked together to enable job matches.


  3. Every job match takes effort, both on the part of the jobseeker and the career coaches who support them. When we report the numbers, we don’t always realise that they do not come easily. This event allows us to peel away the onion, so to speak.


  4. There are literally thousands of stories. Although we can only showcase a few, I think you will agree with me many of them are inspiring stories of courage and perseverance, families being uplifted, lives getting better.


  5. When I had the chance to meet some of the jobseekers on previous occasions, I was also very touched by what they had to say about the help they received at WSG. Sometimes, they used expressions that are quite unexpected, like “light at the end of the tunnel”, or “staying afloat on a stormy sea”. Mostly, their words were unvarnished and heartfelt, not meant so much as compliments but rather to convey their appreciation.


  6. These jobseekers affirm our work. But in fact, we believe it is their effort that made the biggest difference. This is why we also want to show them our appreciation, for inspiring us to do better.


  7. 66-year-old Chan Gek Khoon is one such jobseeker. After he was laid off from his job as a driver, he felt discouraged and worried that his age might hurt his chances at finding a job. This is a very common concern. He also lacked a resume and was not good with computers.


  8. Thankfully, he had the support of 30-year-old Peili, who began her journey as a career coach with WSG seven years ago. Peili worked closely with Gek Khoon to understand his needs. She encouraged him, constantly reassuring him that his age was not a barrier.


  9. To Gek Khoon’s credit, he kept an open mind and was very willing to learn with the help of his much younger coach. Peili worked with him to craft his first resume. She also patiently helped him practise for mock interviews, roleplaying as a prospective employer.


  10. Today, Peili is proud to count Gek Khoon as one of her success stories, having helped him to land a job with Mandarin Oriental as a doorman. Gek Khoon is thankful he persevered, and did not write off Peili or WSG.


  11. Keep in mind that we have just about 120 coaches, like Peili, who work with around 25,000 jobseekers in any given year. Our pool of coaches in both WSG and e2i has remained largely the same size. Yet in total, placements under the A&G programme grew more than 40% between 2016 and 2018. This is quite an achievement. I want to thank my colleagues in WSG and e2i for their tremendous efforts.

    A different jobs landscape


  12. In the coming months, we must expect our work to get tougher.


  13. In May last year when we first held the event, the jobs landscape was largely positive.
    1. Local employment was growing steadily across most sectors
    2. Resident unemployment was on the downtrend.
    3. Retrenchments were down.

  14. Fast forward 14 months to today, the mood is changing.
    1. There is still job growth, but it is slower and more uneven.
    2. Most employers are not retrenching 
    3. But they are also more cautious with hiring.
    4. The outlook is less certain.


  15. Even so, the efforts of WSG and our partners continue to produce encouraging results.
    1. In the first half of this year, we helped about 18,000 jobseekers secure jobs, about 9% more than the same period last year.
    2. This includes placements from A&G programmes, as well as career matching services by WSG and NTUC’s e2i.


  16. Of the 18,000 workers placed, over 60% were previously unemployed.
    1. Take 40-year-old Poh Kay Leong for example.
    2. He lost his job when his company decided to restructure.
    3. After four months, he finally landed an interview with a biomedical firm, Thermo Fisher Scientific, with WSG’s help.
    4. Despite his lack of experience, the firm appreciated his aptitude for learning, and attitude in adapting to new challenges.
    5. As such, they decided to hire him through the Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) for Medical Technology Assistant Engineers.
    6. Today, Kay Leong is happy that he has become a Senior Engineering Technician, which has not only provided him with more skills, but also higher pay than his previous job.


  17. About two-thirds of our PCP participants are like Kay Leong, earning higher wages after they moved into new roles. In some sense, economic restructuring helped them land better jobs. We will walk the journey with jobseekers like Kay Leong to make progress even as they adjust, because we understand that the transition is not easy.

    In the short term – keep a close watch, sharpen competitiveness and grow


  18. In times of economic uncertainty, it is natural that more people worry about jobs. How is the 4G team thinking about this? What plans do we have to deal with a potential fallout? How will we ensure our people continue to have good jobs?


  19. Let me try and unpack the challenges and opportunities into the short, medium and longer term.


  20. In the short term, we may or may not have a downturn. In a general downturn, how we respond depends on our assessment of the causes – whether they are cyclical or structural, or both. It will also depend on the severity of impact – whether broad-based or sectoral, shallow or deep. These considerations will shape our strategy for recovery.


  21. In recent memory, the most severe downturn was the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers. I was then serving as a union leader, in NTUC.


  22. At the start of 2009, the International Labour Organisation projected up to 50 million job losses worldwide. In Singapore, economists estimated up to 100,000 job losses when annual retrenchments typically did not exceed 15,000.


  23. A downturn can be worrying. What is more worrying, however, is when there is no end in sight. This can happen if the fundamentals of an economy are not strong, for example, the economy is not well diversified or many industries have lost competitiveness.


  24. Even with strong fundamentals, getting a weakened economy back on track takes imagination, resources and some luck. Fortunately for Singapore in 2009, we had the resources to help companies obtain financing, retain and upskill their workers.


  25. Helped by improving external conditions, our economy managed to avoid a significant contraction that year and charged ahead by more than 14% the next. During the entire episode, resident unemployment rose but stayed below 5%. By the first quarter of 2011, unemployment had returned to pre-crisis levels.


  26. As it currently stands, a downturn like the scale and scope of the GFC appears very unlikely. But the most significant point is that our economy today is well diversified, more so than in 2009, a decade ago. While some sectors like electronics have weakened, other sectors like information and communications are holding up well, and still hiring.


  27. For now, we should keep a close watch over the economy. At the same time, keep sharpening our competitiveness and grow where we can.

    In the medium term – make the best of demographic and technology change


  28. Earlier this year, the tripartite partners hosted a regional conference with the International Labour Organisation on the Future of Work. We discussed two trends that posed a threat to jobs and employment in the medium term.


  29. The first challenge is demographic.


  30. More countries have seen their Total Fertility Rate fall below replacement levels. Of the 10 ASEAN Member States, five are in this category. How can we better support marriage and parenthood?


  31. Populations are also ageing. Countries like Japan are asking what it means for their citizens to live the 100-year life.


  32. Singapore too will experience a dramatic demographic transition in the next decade. With a calibrated pace of immigration, our citizen population aged 25-64, will be stable. But the population of citizens aged 65 and above will almost double from half a million today to about 900,000 in 2030.


  33. As of 2017, Singapore had the highest life expectancy at birth in the world, at 84.8 years. We also have the highest healthy life expectancy at birth, at 74.2 years. These are projected to rise further with continued advances in healthcare. With Singaporeans leading longer, healthier lives, how do we turn longevity into opportunity?


  34. In the next few weeks, you will hear more from Prime Minister Lee and several 4G Ministers on these topics.


  35. The second challenge is driven by technology.


  36. All over the world, there is a worry that many workers will be left behind in a future where automation and artificial intelligence have replaced humans. For Singapore, there are actually many more upsides than downsides to technology.


  37. This is because we are fundamentally labour-constrained. For years, our economy has created many more jobs than we have people to do them. Today, it is supported by a workforce of 3.5M when we have a local workforce of just 2.3M.


  38. The right strategy is to help businesses grow in a more manpower-lean way. It will also pave the way for sustainable wage growth. Technology-enabled productivity growth is therefore an opportunity not to be missed.


  39. It will be many years of hard work before we take full advantage of the productivity uplift that technology can bring. Not everything can be automated. Workers will still be needed in a variety of roles. But we must help them gain mastery by using technology, so they need not fear but embrace it.

    In the long term – focus on career mobility through job creation and job transformation


  40. While we prepare for the demographic and technological challenges in the medium-term, we must not lose sight of the long term.


  41. This year is also Singapore’s Bicentennial. As an independent nation, we are well into the second half of our first century. We are not done building Singapore.


  42. In the longer term, what we do on the jobs front is ultimately shaped by Singaporeans’ aspirations for work. What is our vision? What future do we care to create?


  43. Here is what I would venture. Tomorrow’s workers are not looking for jobs just to put food on the table. Many more want careers that engage their imagination and energies, give them meaning and purpose.


  44. At the same time, our people want opportunities for change and progress.


  45. At different stages of our lives, some jobs are more appealing than others. This is why we need career mobility, allowing our people avenues and pathways to transit as their needs evolve.


  46. How do we enable career mobility? Is it achievable for the broad majority?


  47. My answer is yes, provided we can do two things consistently well.


  48. The first is job creation, because there can be no careers without jobs.  


  49. Our capacity for job creation remains reasonably strong. From 2011 to 2018, in only eight out of 32 quarters did we see our job vacancy to unemployed person ratio dip below one. This means that most of the time, we have more jobs than jobseekers to fill them. Even as I speak, there are far more vacancies than the number of people retrenched.


  50. But make no mistake – there is stiff competition for investments and jobs.


  51. As the heat intensifies, we must work hard to continue attracting home-grown and foreign companies to base their operations here. We must also work smart, to build up where we have an edge and leverage external resources when it’s better to do so. Our politics must not cause investors to lose confidence, because it will be ordinary workers that pay the price, not politicians.


  52. Beyond job creation, we need job quality. 

  53. While a high job vacancy to unemployed person ratio signals an abundance of job opportunities, we must ask why some vacancies remain unfilled.


  54. Where our people lack the skills, we now have a well-developed system to plug the gaps. Many programmes are available within the SkillsFuture movement and through Adapt and Grow, and the overall reach is extensive. As long as a jobseeker is flexible, agile, nimble, and willing, we will help him or her pick up the skills to move into jobs.


  55. However, some vacancies remain unfilled because the job quality falls well below the expectations of our people. How do we work with employers to upgrade jobs, striking a fine balance between industry needs and worker aspirations?


  56. The reality is that a slack labour market does not give businesses much incentive to improve job quality. A little tightness is necessary and why we sometimes have to make unpopular policy adjustments, such as moderating access to foreign manpower in some sectors. It goes without saying that help is readily available to companies which make the effort to improve job quality so they are more attractive.


  57. This also brings us to the second requirement for career mobility, job transformation.

  58. At the point of creation, jobs may be very attractive. Over time, they can lose their shine.


  59. In the 1970s, among young women with secondary school level qualifications, bank tellers were a “hot job”. Today, these young women can advance to ITE, polytechnics and further. A bank job might excite them more if it involves digital marketing or data analysis, and a pathway to bigger responsibilities.


  60. Jobs should also be continuously redesigned so that workers can contribute more meaningfully.


  61. Central kitchens now use auto-fryers which brings relieve aching shoulders and free up cooks to focus on food quality. CCTVs and video analytics now allow security guards to monitor many more buildings without lengthy patrols and sore feet. Flexible work arrangements help to retain staff who otherwise leave to manage their caregiving duties.


  62. Transforming jobs is therefore at the heart of our future economy plans.


  63. Restructuring of the economy creates news jobs and also causes some jobs to disappear. But the broad swathe of jobs that remain must also be refreshed.


  64. This must involve businesses themselves. Job transformation is ultimately a result of decisions taken by companies to change operating models, invest in new processes or equipment, open up new lines of business or reset work arrangements.


  65. Workers know this only too well. When their employers fail to transform jobs, put their skills to better use or accommodate their aspirations, they seek out other employers who can. This is why it is also in the best interests of businesses to keep re-inventing their businesses and jobs at the same time.


  66. As jobs are transformed, we create a healthy demand for skills to be upgraded.The two go together.


  67. Think of our focus on jobs and skills as a pair of wings. We need both to fly.Herein lies one of Singapore’s biggest opportunities.

    Tripartism: Working in partnership for our workers


  68. Whenever I speak to my foreign manpower or labour counterparts, I’m reminded of how similar our challenges are, in spite of great differences in size or stage of development. They in turn, often point out two differences that set Singapore apart. The first is our capacity to plan and organise well ahead of time. The second is our unique tripartite model. Let me focus on the latter.


  69. The strategies for jobs and skills transformation that we have put in place can quite easily be copied by any of our competitors. But they are actually not so easy to implement. Alignment of interests and efforts is often elusive and don’t come so easily.


  70. To implement our strategies well, we need agencies that are focussed and coordinating closely with one another. Trade associations and chambers must help design the roadmaps and effectively guide their enterprise members. We also need the labour movement to galvanise workers and help them to adapt.


  71. A good example of how these efforts are coming together is the Future Economy Council (FEC), a tripartite committee led by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat that charts the direction of Singapore’s economy. The FEC oversees the implementation of the Industry Transformation Maps, which lay out sectoral strategies to drive innovation, promote internationalisation, raise productivity and develop jobs and skills across 23 sectors.


  72. Over the last 4 years, these plans have been refined and executed by government agencies, firms and unions, in careful consultation with one another. Coordination is a key central tenet.


  73. Another example of our tripartite partnership in action is NTUC’s initiative to form 1,000 Company Training Committees. Unions are not fighting plans by companies to restructure. Instead, they are engaging employers early to design skills training that support enterprise transformation. They do so because they know this will save workers from potential redundancy, while boosting the likelihood that business plans succeed. Hence the mantra of saving workers and not the jobs per se.


  74. Let me conclude. In Chinese language, crisis or “危机” literally means danger and opportunity. During the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998, it was fashionable to say that every crisis was also an opportunity.


  75. Today’s job situation can hardly be described as a crisis. But this idea that we can find opportunity in adversity is always useful.


  76. In the short term, almost every advanced economy today faces slower growth. In the medium term, almost every developed society must deal with low fertility or ageing, or both; almost every industry, business and worker must adapt to technology. In the longer term, almost every government needs new ways to meet people’s changing aspirations. Singapore is no different.


  77. But our Singapore way is to find opportunity in every adversity, just like every jobseeker we honour today.


  78. Our Singapore way is also to face challenges together, just as all the coaches and employers here today have chipped in and supported the jobseekers.


  79. When it comes to jobs and skills, we have a window of opportunity to move ahead while others are still getting organised. We have already started.


  80. Our Singapore way must be to work together to open up this lead.