Unemployment Goes Beyond Skills Gap

Pep Talk Alone Not Enough to Lift the Mood of the Young Amid a Slumping Economy

The Singapore economy appears to be taking hard knocks, with more unemployment looming.

When troubled times lurk, pep talk from leaders takes centre-stage. Last week one minister after another delivered reassurances to Singaporeans that jobs were available aplenty and more were being created steadily.

Today’s reports in the media had Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also bring up the issue, pointing out that “Singapore is at a new phase in its development – one in which the jobs available and the skills in demand are different from before and are changing rapidly.”

Precise Assessment

That is a precise assessment but “technology transforming industries and old jobs fading away” do not signal any sudden and dramatic shift. Just like driverless cabs will not go mainstream for the next two decades at a minimum!

The transformation has been happening the past few decades, perhaps why Singapore had developed and executed its plan of becoming an Intelligent Island by year 2000. It has followed it up with a blueprint for making Singapore the world’s first Smart Nation by 2025.

Singapore’s Critical Failure

Not many governments can come up with that level of forward planning. Where I think the government failed was in building a local talent pool that can meet the bulk of the human resource requirements in Singapore without having to import foreign mediocrity.

What is the use of being home to top-notch universities when locals find it hard to be absorbed by them, particularly in new-generation courses critical for industry? This is a critical failure the Government may have to own up.


PM Lee with students at the Singapore Institute of Technology – Picture Credit: PM Lee’s FB page

Keeping locals away from the institutions while exhorting them to upgrade their skills and be technically ready for the future is missing the crux of the issue, either deliberately or as a weak pretext. Degrees in the right discipline come first, and skills upgrading comes next!

In addition, let us not forget that jobs must be the right of every individual in the country, irrespective of what type of degrees or qualifications he or she holds. It is, nonetheless, the responsibility of everyone in the country to make the government’s task easier by pursuing education that provides them with an easy path to jobs on graduation. The government will have to facilitate that.

Locals Short-changed – From Education to Jobs

Campus diversity can come in when the interests of its citizens have been fulfilled. Next, all talk about technology redefining business can be dismissed as hollow if firms remain stuck in old-fashioned ways without the ability to come up with innovative ways to meet any perceived personnel crunch.

Most of the jobs that are being talked about do not involve rocket science. They involve skills that can be acquired provided businesses are willing to train the recruits. As a matter of fact, even most of the foreign resources they import acquire the skills needed only on the job. Clearly, therefore, locals are being short-changed across the board – from education to jobs.

There are still multinational companies in Singapore that put up Mandarin as a requirement for entry-level jobs. There are still many who nurture age prejudices. When retrenchments happen, it will be too naïve to believe it is a skills gap that is behind unemployment in the country.

The Jobs Bank Excuse

Interestingly, the ministers relied on the Jobs Bank database to highlight the availability of more than 70,000 jobs. It is not difficult to discover that the truth lies hidden behind that lofty figure.

Not all jobs advertised can be expected to be immediately available. Advertise, gather CVs and take no action – this is not an uncommon ploy.

Moreover, Jobs Bank is an excuse for them to bring in those they fancy from overseas. Is the government monitoring how they fill up the advertised positions? It is not practical for the Government to do this.

But it is easy for employers to claim they did not attract local applicants with the skill set they need. Precisely why the Government must apply greater rigour around issuing employment passes – even if they are for dependent spouses of those employed here!

Jobs creation will find resonance with the people if that is not seen as a way to import the so-called talent from across the shores.

The Emergence of Trump in the U.S.

It is cross-border lenience that has led to the emergence of Mr Donald Trump as a Presidential nominee in the U.S. causing divisions even in the country built by immigrants. Even there, foreigners do not account for 50% of the population as they do in Singapore.

All prejudices will disappear if more restrictions are put in place in terms of getting access to foreign personnel. I have been hearing from foreigners working in Singapore about how difficult it is to gain Permanent Residence in the country.

I don’t consider this as any tightening of immigration. Greater controls are needed in the dispensing of employment passes and student passes to foreigners.

Singapore must be ready to let go of companies that show a disinclination to hire and train locals. An overcrowded Singapore packed with foreigners to the brim and a deteriorating quality of life are hardly desirable!

PS: This is a topic I have been consistently writing about because of its import. It includes a post this May

G Joslin Vethakumar

1 Comment

Filed under Singapore Education, Singapore job scene

One response to “Unemployment Goes Beyond Skills Gap

  1. Pingback: Govt Must Admit Failure to Build a Local Talent Pool | Top of the Word

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