PMET unemployment in Singapore continues to climb

Singapore, 15 January 2019 : office worker and tourist in front of Raffles Place, Central Business District.'
Office worker and tourists in front of Raffles Place, Central Business District. PHOTO: Getty Photos

By Linette Heng

SINGAPORE — Jeremy Ho* (not his real name) began his job hunt even before receiving his retrenchment notice in June, having heard about impending job cuts at the bank where he had spent six years.

But 20 applications and three interviews later, the 39-year-old remains jobless.

Ho is part of a growing group of Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs) that seem unable to break out of the retrenchment rut. According to the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) latest labour report, while retrenchments fell from 3,230 in the first quarter to 2,320 in the second, the number of PMETs who lost their jobs increased from 1,440 to 1,680, making them the bulk of those retrenched.

Nearly half of those told to go had a degree, and 70 per cent were over 40.

“PMETs continue to form a much larger share of retrenched workers compared to their proportion in the workforce,” said DBS senior economist Irvin Seah. PMETs made up 57 per cent of the resident workforce in 2018.

Seah calls PMETs “the newly vulnerable”, noting that the percentage share of PMETs among all retrenched workers has been rising over the past nine years despite their skills and qualifications.

He cited their “persistently much lower” rate of re-entering the workforce after six months of retrenchment - 57.8 per cent in the second quarter, lower than the 59.9 per cent average.

Part of the problem could be an expectations gap. Seah noted, "Most of them are white-collar, skilled workers who command a higher salary and have many financial and family commitments. They are looking for jobs that can support (their lifestyle), but (these) are not readily available anymore."

Preference for digital natives, playing it safe

Apart from some PMETs lacking the skills needed in the digital economy, millenial digital natives have another edge, said Elena Chow, founder of ConnectOne, which mainly places job-seekers in the technology industry.

"Companies are looking for drive, creativity, out-of-box mindsets...and with most (PMET jobseekers) being from large global MNCs with a good amount of resources, there is that lack of entrepreneurial spirit," she explained.

HR expert Adrian Tan from HR technology company PeopleStrong added that it can be hard to convince employers in some sectors of a fit, such as when he suggested a marketing professional from an offshore company for a shipping role. “Mostly companies want to play safe... even if one were to fit, other discriminatory factors come into play - too old, over-qualified, a current pay that is too high.”

That was the challenge James Ching, 41, faced after he resigned from his job as regional marketing director in the education industry last December. He had spent 17 years in marketing positions in both MNCs and the public sector, but eight months in, and despite help from recruiters, he remains jobless.

“I thought that one (interview) went well, but they …thought I wouldn’t be happy because the role was too junior,” he said.

Retraining, government support needed

That is not to say some PMETs haven’t been able to break out of the cycle.

Leonard Lau, 49, remained unemployed for nine months until he trained his focus on refining his resume and attending some $10,000 worth of courses on everything from management to bitcoin. He landed a position as a senior project manager at a telco, and then an MNC.

Retraining for new and emerging roles can make the critical difference, said Tan from PeopleStrong, adding, “I’m not talking about three-day courses. It is about going back to school for a six-months to one-year programme on skills that are highly sought after such as analytics or cyber security.”

And besides government schemes like the Professional Conversion Programme (PCP), which helps mid-career PMETs find jobs in new industries and supports companies who hire them, more could be done at the national level – including intervening before people are let go and, on a case-by-case basis, throwing companies a lifeline, Seah suggested.

"There should be industry consultations and dialogues to identify at-risk companies and workers before retrenchments take place to ensure that they get the necessary support as well as reskilling.”

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