WITH the latest tightening of the rules on hiring foreigners in Singapore, the government has left no doubt about its approach and priorities in dealing with the economy's manpower challenges.
If some employers had been disappointed that the 2018 Budget unveiled last month did not address their calls for an immediate easing of hiring curbs, especially in key specialist-tech areas, the Ministry of Manpower has not only not budged. Instead, more companies will soon be required to open vacancies to locals first, by advertising the positions on the national Jobs Bank for at least 14 days, before they may hire a foreigner for the role. This will, from July 1, apply to jobs paying under S$15,000 a month (up from S$12,000 currently), and is to ensure that Singaporeans continue to be "fairly considered for job opportunities".
No employer here would (or should) begrudge the call to hire locals. But where the skills crunch has come up as an issue - and in many cases impeded business growth - is particularly in up- and-coming digital tech fields that call for qualifications and training in data analytics, software writing, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, etc. To be sure, the tertiary institutions now have courses such as business analytics - but it would still be a few more years before there's a regular pipeline of trained specialist skills to meet the demand. Meanwhile, businesses need to plug their gaps here and now, and in many instances, they need not just newly-minted graduates but expertise with experience. As some companies told BT, Singapore's tech manpower shortage is holding back their growth plans. Many feel they have no choice but to outsource their tech operations, or hire teams overseas, or forego the business opportunity altogether. The lack of skills is a business constraint.
The government isn't blind or deaf to the situation. But where businesses cry "skills shortage", Singaporeans complain of competition from foreigners for jobs, it says. Having weighed the competing demands of business and the people, the government has set out its course of action. As Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say put it in Parliament on Monday, "we are pro-business, but only to those who are pro-worker". Singapore's foreign manpower policies have to be open enough to support business growth, yet tight enough to enhance local employment growth, he said. His ministry has on its watchlist 500 companies that unfairly favour foreigners in hiring, it was disclosed. These blacklisted companies face greater scrutiny in their Employment Pass (EP) applications. Notwithstanding the broad rules, Mr Lim said there could be "some flexibility but only in a highly selective manner" in "exceptional" situations where EP applicants have skills that are required here but cannot meet the criteria.
In any case, in line with industry trends, Singapore is investing in developing digital capabilities across the economy - to equip "all firms", notably SMEs, to "go digital", and to train Singaporeans in digital skills. Since it was launched in 2016, more than 27,000 people have taken up places or committed to the Tech Skills Accelerator programme, which will now be expanded into new sectors, with additional resources of S$145 million. There's also a new scheme to speed up the transfer of foreign expertise to locals. Make no mistake: Singapore is out to plug its skills shortages. Businesses would have to be patient waiting to tap the local talent pipeline, but should also avail themselves to the schemes at hand that could help meet their skills needs.