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Fair chance? We should be focusing on skills

It probably came as no surprise to many when the government announced on Monday that companies must prove they have attempted to hire Singaporeans before recruiting foreign professionals.

From next August, organisations with 25 employees or more must post any professional, manager and executive (PME) vacancies on a national jobs portal for 14 days, to ensure Singaporeans are being given a ‘fair chance’ at being hired.

Only companies offering positions paying more than $12,000 a month are exempt from the new ruling.

I can understand the government’s thinking here. While Singapore has a low rate of unemployment, those who have been retrenched have been forced into other means of earning to make ends meet – despite many having tertiary education – in a country where local salaries have not matched rising inflation.

As well as this, the Singaporean people’s general dissatisfaction with the number of foreigners in the country has been gradually growing. If you attended any of the multiple well-attended organised protests earlier this year, you’ll know what I mean.

The government has already changed a number of policies to address this – such as the more difficult requirements for gaining the EntrePass, the raised threshold for people being issued with a Personalised Employment Pass (PEP), and the increasing base pay for EP holders. So, an additional measure like this latest announcement is no shock to the system.

However, my concern when thinking about the well-being and long-term benefits for Singaporean professionals, is that this latest announcement is just another band-aid being put over an issue which really needs surgery.

Yes, the jobs portal will force companies to consider more Singaporeans for jobs, but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of Singaporeans being hired based on their own merit and capabilities, my concern is that employers will turn to Singaporeans because foreigners will simply become too expensive or difficult to hire.

Doing this will increase the number of Singaporean PMEs being offered jobs, but will completely skip over the root of the problem, which is the need to focus on skills and experience.

I am well aware a plethora of Singaporean companies, and multi-national organisations based in Singapore, are putting a stronger focus on grooming and up-skilling local talent to feed into their talent pipelines, which is all a step in right direction.

However, companies looking for fast growth in Singapore (which, let’s be honest, is why they’ve come here in the first place) who need employees with more complex or particular skills will want professionals who have worked on similar projects in London, or New York – wherever. Singaporeans can often account for the skills needed, but are less likely to be able to offer the same level of experience.

Because of this, I am sure many, many companies will simply pay lip service to the jobs portal. It will become a procedure – a formality – they must attend to before getting down to business, which will help nobody in the long run.

There’s no easy answer to bridging the skills gap in Singapore – at least nothing I can offer in this column – but it will come down in part to ensuring learning never stops; better using technology to allow for increased and more precise training; pulling back the 200,000 experiences and skilled Singaporeans who are currently working overseas, and, yes, using the jobs portal to identify which areas are suffering the most from skills shortages.

I think people often forget Singapore is a young country which still needs time to grow. While the city state has reveled in phenomenal growth and economic success, there’s no way it can build up the same skilled workforce of say, England or America – much older countries with more complex and robust history of labour revolutions – in a shorter time frame.

And, many would argue, Singapore’s success has been due, in part, to always being open and welcoming to foreign labour, talent and investment.

Is simply making it more difficult for companies to hire foreigners really the best way to ensure Singaporean professionals stand out on top? What about the fact that Singapore’s demographic structure indicates a quickly shrinking working population?

No one wants Singapore to become an old age home, and no one wants to see the country fall behind its competitors in terms of innovation and productivity because of it.

I simply hope people don’t lose focus of what is important, and that’s ensuring Singaporean professionals are the best people for the job – not a default option.

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