budgetA Budget to Address Emerging Concerns

by Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

This commentary was also published in Karyawan, A Magazine by the Association of Muslim  Professionals (AMP), January 2018, Volume 13, Issue 1

While 2017 has been a relatively “good year” for Singapore in economic terms, there were concerns expressed over some emerging issues. It is hoped that Singapore Budget 2018 will address these issues as Singaporeans strive to secure a more positive future.

In February last year, the employment hurdle of fresh graduates was highlighted by a joint graduate employment survey by Nanyang Technological University (NTU), National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Management University (SMU). 2016 saw a smaller percentage (80.2%) of fresh graduates from NTU, NUS and SMU landing permanent full-time jobs within six months of graduation, down from 83.1% the year before, the lowest since the 2012 cohort, of which 85.6% landed permanent full-time jobs.

A month later, statistics released by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) revealed a sombre state of the employment market. Layoffs, which have been rising since 2010, hit 19,170 in 2016, up from 15,580 the previous year. Professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) formed three-quarters of all residents who were laid off in the fourth quarter of 2016.

The figure for degree holders on long-term unemployment in 2016 was highest since 2004 at 1%, up from 0.8% in 2015.

What makes the above developments worrying is that analysts have attributed them to the weak economic situation and changes in the labour market, conditions that are expected to prevail for an uncertain period of time as Singapore negotiates the uncertainties of the future economy and factors influencing it, such as global geopolitics. At the micro-level, these are emerging issues that may further complicate the set of challenges faced by households.

The Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA) recently conducted roundtable discussions with several self-help organisations, social workers and counsellors to solicit views on what Singapore Budget 2018 should include. This article highlights some of the points raised.

Fresh graduates

There are existing initiatives that fresh graduates who are struggling to secure a job after graduating could tap on. The Work Trial scheme, a part of the Adapt and Grow initiative, can help address a common complaint: the lack of work experience. Jobseekers can gain experience through a short-term work trial while at the same time understanding job demands and identifying a career path of their choice. For instance, those interested in biopharmaceuticals can consider the Attach and Train programme for the Biologics sector.

However, what appears lacking is a dedicated scheme for fresh graduates. Spending the initial period of their working life hovering between jobs or going for gig economy employment like driving for Uber or Grab may undermine acquisition and deepening of skills to boost their long-term employability.

Schemes targeting fresh graduates can be structured so as to link pre-graduation ones with post-graduation ones to ensure participants are on a promising trajectory. Undergraduates should be encouraged to apply to schemes such as Spring Singapore’s SME Talent Programme for Students. They help interns gain industry exposure and secure career opportunities with promising local SMEs through structured internships. For those who are unable to secure jobs, the Adapt and Grow Scheme should have a component that undertakes the follow-up role of ensuring candidates are able to build on the experience they have acquired through internships rather than be forced to seek employment in industries where the skills and knowledge gleaned during internship cannot be applied.

Apart from SMEs, such an initiative should be expanded to include MNCs and the public service sector, presenting prospective graduates with a range of choices to match their skills and interests. The government could allocate a budget for facilitating the entry of fresh graduates into the workforce.

Awareness of Schemes

Existing schemes – from training opportunities in growth industries to available funding – are many and diverse. They are available to applicants of various levels of education and at various stages of their career but awareness about them seems lacking, as shared by some participants of the roundtable discussion, including those who work closely with youths. It follows that many may not be familiar with the sheer number of industries and positions associated with the programmes. The Professional Conversion Programme (PCP), for instance, covers an array of industries – aerospace, electronics, info-comm, tourism, healthcare, financial services, retail and social service to name a few. Prospective applicants stand a good chance of finding a career path that is aligned with their interest.

While the government allocates budget for developing such programmes, it should not lose sight of the fact that outreach is crucial to the take-up rate of these initiatives and for prospective applicants to make informed choices. Thus, it is worth setting aside a sum for developing a robust outreach programme, involving a network of collaboration between government agencies, unions, voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) and self-help groups and industries. Such a multi-sector partnership serves the interest of all parties, raising the efficiency level of the process of reaching out to prospective applicants and matching them to courses and industries.

Prospects of Younger Singaporeans in Low-Wage Jobs

For younger Singaporeans in low-wage jobs, they face a long and winding road towards better socioeconomic outcomes. As their liabilities increase over time – through marriage and having children, and home ownership – they risk being saddled with multifaceted problems with finance being the key factor.

The Straits Times ran an article, “Growing Number of Young Singaporeans in Need, Relying on Government Handouts”, in April last year, pointing to a 40% jump in 2015 from the 4,016 young households who received ComCare aid in 2012. There are alternative explanations to this dramatic increase, such as a rising number of young people who are temporarily unable to work due to illness. However, it is worth noting that the plight of those with secondary qualifications and below can be aggravated in the context of an economy that is plagued by disruptive technologies since these thrive on innovation, deep skills and constant upgrading.

While most may be employed, they are susceptible to poverty as changes in their income may not keep pace with increasing liabilities over time. Based on data from General Household Survey 2015, 16% of those aged between 25 and 39 among the resident population possess only secondary qualification and below. The case for the Malay community is starker at 32%.

Based on his interactions with those in this group, a participant found that many are resigned to remaining where they are and do not have plans to upgrade their skills to be more employable or boost their earning potential. This can, in part, be attributed to the lack of awareness and, for those who are aware, the bandwidth to process the available information. Another participant, a counsellor, related that many of her clients expressed a lack of faith in landing a higher-level job after investing in skills upgrading, citing the lack of formal educational attainment as a major stumbling block.

Budget 2018 may wish to consider a comprehensive skills upgrading package targeting those with secondary and below qualifications, which features mentoring as a means of helping them make sense of the information available, dispel misconceptions about opportunities after upgrading their skills and chart a path towards the career of their choice.

Employment Dilemma of Caregivers in Households with Young and Elderly Dependants

Middle- to low-income households with both young and elderly dependants are likely to face situations in which the females forego employment to tend to caregiving needs at home. For such households, the alternative is to send the elderly dependant to day care centres for seniors and young dependants to full-day childcare or Student Care Centres (SCCs) for older children. This would enable women in such households to seek employment, which adds to the subsidies they receive for childcare or SCCs.

A focus group that RIMA conducted and views shared during the roundtable discussions suggest that merely outsourcing caregiving to care centres for the elderly and the young may not be the only consideration. A participant recounted that a number of her low-income clients were not motivated to seek employment because they believed they would earn a meagre wage, thus not justifying foregoing caregiving for their dependants. Conspicuously missing in their assessment of their situation is that there are prospects for them to pursue reasonably higher income by tapping on existing schemes and funds, such as SkillsFuture Credit. What is needed is a plan on how to take advantage of these initiatives to be gainfully employed and contribute to the household income. Most of the economically inactive women who participated in the focus group expressed willingness to seek employment if their concerns could be addressed.

For women who are former PMETs who had foregone employment for such caregiving needs, NTUC U Family and NTUC’s e2i (Employment and Employability Institute) offer The Returner Work Trial, a new scheme to facilitate the re-entry of economically inactive PMETs (“returners”) back to the workforce, by providing employment opportunities. While this initiative is designed to enable employers to assess the returner’s fit for the job before offering a permanent position or an employment contract of 12 months or above, it implicitly allows the returner to evaluate whether the job fits their work-life arrangements.

According to NTUC, returners can plug gaps in their Curriculum Vitae (CV) and refresh the relevance of their skillsets and ease back into work.

The economic slowdown is expected to persist into the foreseeable future with moderate forecast for 2018, raising concerns about job security. It is imperative that households are at least dual income ones so that if the income of one earner is affected, there is that of another to sustain living expenses. In households with young and elderly dependants, caregiving often constrains the household to becoming a single income one, which makes them vulnerable to adverse socioeconomic outcomes. Hence, Budget 2018 may wish to consider an intervention package that encourages economically-inactive caregivers to return to the workforce, addresses the reservations they harbour and conveys the range of schemes available to them.

A Hopeful Budget for 2018

When Budget 2017 was announced, it delved into areas that are critical to keep society progressing under harsh economic and social realities. These include deepening people’s capabilities, enhancements to preschool sector, enhancements of bursaries for post-secondary education institutions and the Enabling Masterplan to better integrate Persons with Disabilities into the workforce and to give more support to their caregivers. Budget 2018 should continue this strategy of identifying at-risk groups and sectors that require intervention or new forms of support. Hopefully, the plight of fresh graduates, young workers trapped in low-wage jobs and employment dilemma of caregivers sandwiched between young and elderly dependants would be looked into.

 

Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is a Researcher / Projects Coordinator with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the research subsidiary of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP). The views expressed in the article are his own.

 
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