Nine recommendations to the government for manpower management in the services sector

The nine recommendations, proposed by SBF, fall under a three-pronged approach: talent, teamwork, and rules. In one recommendation, ideas were proposed for businesses to enhance the value proposition of such jobs in order to become a top choice for locals.

To support and resolve manpower needs and challenges of industries in the lifestyle services, environmental services, and estate & facilities management (EFM) services, the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) proposed nine recommendations that key stakeholders, such as businesses, trade associations and chambers (TACs), government agencies, unions, and post-secondary educational institutions (PSEIs), can adopt. These were shared in its policy paper titled, The Human Touch: Balancing Manpower Resilience with Productivity for Transformation.

Developed in close consultation with TACs, including the Environmental Management Association of Singapore (EMAS), the Landscape Industry Association (Singapore) (LIAS), the Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS), the Security Association Singapore (SAS), the Singapore Hotel Association (SHA), the Singapore Nightlife Business Association (SNBA), the Singapore Retailers Association (SRA), and the Waste Management & Recycling Association of Singapore (WMRAS), the nine recommendations (below) hinge on a three-pronged approach* - talent, teamwork, and rules - which SBF believes is required to achieve "sustainable and inclusive economic growth".

In SBF's statement, the organisation said there is "an urgent need" to recalibrate manpower supply in the services industries to "enable companies to operate at optimal capacity", so as to "deliver the level of service that Singaporeans, and visitors expect". Addressing the manpower crunch - via the nine recommendations - will also "help companies to plan ahead for growth and transformation".

Lam Yi Young, CEO, SBF added: "To maintain Singapore’s reputation as an efficient and vibrant business and leisure destination of choice, the services industries need access to suitable and sufficient manpower to support their operations, even as they double down on automating processes and redesigning jobs, businesses still need to be able to recruit and retain sufficient local and foreign manpower."

He looks forward to working with fellow TACs, member companies, NTUC, and government agencies to follow-up on the key actions outlined in the paper.

Commenting on SBF's report, Desmond Choo, NTUC Assistant Secretary-General said: "NTUC recognises that the labour market will continue to tighten with the recovering economy, with some sectors coming under greater manpower strain.

"We appreciate the effort by SBF to address the manpower crunch and agree that more can be done to ensure that this crunch does not affect business and service delivery. However, we will need to further study the specific recommendations with our tripartite partners."

HRO has summarised the recommendations below. 

Talent

Under the first prong, talent, there are three recommendations proposed.

Recommendation 1 (R1): Tripartite partners to actively coordinate the redeployment of workforce from pandemic-related operations to lifestyle services

"There were around 2,000 safe distancing ambassadors (SDAs) employed by the various government agencies as of April 2022, with the number expected to taper as the government eases COVID-19 restrictions. This move will allow critical workforce to be redeployed to other sectors, and a more concerted effort can be made for workers to be re-directed to the lifestyle services," the report analysts at SBF explained.

For R1 to work, the analysts suggest that coordination among the Tripartite Partners is key.

"NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) can work with TACs to organise job fairs and job matching services to match these workers with roles in the lifestyle services, as many of the frontline jobs supporting COVID-19 operations are similar in nature, involving shift hours and interaction with the public. The various government agencies employing workers in COVID-related functions can support this by allocating time-off for workers to attend job fairs organised by e2i. In addition to participating actively in the job matching process, businesses can also tap on the Jobs Growth Incentive and the SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways Programme to facilitate the onboarding of mature mid-career individuals".

Recommendation 2 (R2): Businesses to enhance the value proposition of jobs in lifestyle services, environmental services, and EFM services

It was explained that the lifestyle services, environmental services, and EFM services "have not been the top choice for locals looking for a job". While efforts have been made to enhance the wages and dignity of jobs in these sectors, perceptions are entrenched around long working hours, physical exertion, and having to manage high consumer expectations.

With that in mind, for R2 to happen, it was recommended that businesses enhance the value proposition of these jobs by striving to meet workers where their priorities lie. Using one instance, for workers seeking flexibility, businesses can tap on the suite of resources under the Tripartite Standard on Flexible Work Arrangements and offer more flexible work arrangements to meet their needs. Contrary to common misperceptions, services-related jobs do not always have to involve rigid schedules with long hours. With a complementary pool of full-time employees, part-timers, and casual workers, businesses can offer flexi-shifts in line with operational peaks during certain days or timings.

In another instance, for workers who value higher pay frequency, businesses can offer weekly or fortnightly wage crediting, an arrangement already offered by most gig economy platforms today. This can be done in-house, or in partnership with an earned wage access service provider.

"To secure a healthy pipeline of workers, businesses have been working upstream with post-secondary education institutions (PSEIs) and various training institutions on graduate and internship placements. Despite these efforts, the retail industry for example has found that a significant number of graduates in retail fields-of-study choose to pursue full-time work outside of the industry, with around only one-third of graduates pursuing jobs within the industry. Businesses can excite more students towards these industries through better curation of internship programmes to showcase innovation and development opportunities, which may help reduce the “leakage” from the lifestyle services courses in PSEIs.

Recommendation 3 (R3): Businesses and TACs to work with NTUC and PSEIs to strengthen workplace training and upskilling efforts

Report analysts also believe that it is imperative for businesses to prioritise workplace training and upskilling efforts to ensure that the existing workforce is productive and engaged. While disruption to day-to-day operations can be a major barrier to learning & development (L&D), especially in industries already struggling with chronic manpower shortages, it was explained in the report that:

  • L&D is an essential investment to ensure that workers are equipped with the skills and knowledge to be optimally deployed to support a company’s growth. With over 40% of employees indicating that they had left a job recently due to the lack of L&D opportunities, and
  • L&D is an important talent retention tool against the backdrop of intense competition in the labour market.

To achieve sustained and effective outcomes via R3, business and TACs can tap on the suite of tools and services offered by NTUC, SkillsFuture Singapore, Workforce Singapore, and the PSEIs to co-develop business transformation plans, and workforce development initiatives that are fit-for-purpose. Some examples are: NTUC’s Training and Placement (T&P) Ecosystem, and Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) Champions Workplace Learning.

Teamwork

In the next prong, teamwork, there are three recommendations brought forward.

Recommendation 4 (R4): TACs to facilitate cross-sector collaboration to achieve higher operational effciency and better resource allocation

"The retail-logistics nexus is an opportunity area for deeper cross-sector collaboration. Many retailers have expanded into e-commerce to secure new revenue streams amidst evolving consumption and purchasing patterns. During the pandemic, retailers pivoted frontline sales staff to backend logistics fulfilment roles as physical footfall dropped while online sales surged, an arrangement that will need to be relooked with physical stores springing back to life.

"Given resource constraints, it is not viable for every retailer to invest in full in-house backend warehouse and distribution capabilities to handle the complexities of omni-channel inventory management and direct-to-consumer fulfilment."

As such, retailers can tap on e-commerce enablers and logistics providers to execute supply chain activities. This approach supports economies of scale with a team of warehousing and logistics workers serving a group of companies in the most efficient way, rather than individual companies competing to recruit their own in-house teams (similar to the use of shared services in HR and finance functions by some smaller firms). 

Analysts added that logistics providers can, for one, tap on physical retail stores to facilitate fulfilment instead of focusing only on building their own parcel box infrastructure or only offering door-to-door delivery, which is considered as "the most resource intensive fulfilment option".

For another, they can tap on the built environment-EFM nexus as it is "another opportunity area" for deeper cross-sector collaboration.

"Early engagement with EFM services in the design of buildings allows for intentional infrastructure planning to facilitate the automation of labour-intensive EFM tasks and efficient deployment of EFM workers in integrated roles. An example is lift size and placement which dictates the future feasibility of using robots for routine cleaning work. As EFM functions are automated and streamlined, building owners also benefit from more consistent service standards and reduced reactive maintenance," explained in the report.

To unlock such cross-sector collaborations, what R4 seeks to achieve, TACs - which have intimate knowledge of their members’ common problem statements and unique strengths - can step up to connect potential companies for win-win arrangements. This will help the ecosystem streamline overall manpower utilisation and allocation in lifestyle services, environmental services, and EFM services.

Recommendation 5 (R5): Businesses to step up as Queen Bees to build up value chain capabilities

Singapore has a vibrant landscape comprising multinational companies (MNCs) and large local enterprises (LLEs) that are at the forefront of their industries. In addition to company-based training for their own employees, businesses can also extend these capability building efforts to their industry and value chain to uplift the workforce at scale, the core of R5.

For context, shared in the report, the SkillsFuture Queen Bee (SFQB) network is a platform for anchor companies to champion skills development in SMEs through advisory support in identifying and acquiring the skills needed for business transformation. Building on the momentum of more than 20 SFQB companies appointed thus far, SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) aims to partner up to 40 SFQB companies to benefit 4,000 SMEs by 2025.

Recommendation 6 (R6): Businesses to optimise EFM resource requirements through an outcome-based approach

"As the demand and complexity for EFM services continues to rise with the proliferation of integrated commercial, residential, and recreation facilities, simply increasing manpower to meet service standards is unsustainable," shared in the report.

As such, R6, an outcome-based approach for EFM services could address this by specifying contractual requirements in terms of measurable performance outcomes instead of a predetermined headcount. A mutually discussed longer contract tenure may also be necessary to provide the runway for service providers to invest in the necessary technology and infrastructure, analysts added.

In detail, analysts explained that this model "unlocks value for both service buyers, which are assured of the service level and quality rendered, as well as service providers, which are incentivised to increase worker productivity and invest in technology".

"A less widely discussed benefit of outcome-based contracts (OBCs) is its potential to improve the image and lived experience of workers in environmental services. For instance, an outcome-based landscaping contract creates the opportunity for a skilled landscape worker to optimise physical hours and enjoy a degree of flexibility in working hours, as long as the desired outcomes are achieved."

Rules

The final three recommendations fall under the last prong, rules.

Recommendation 7 (R7): Tripartite partners to work together to review the broad classifications of business activity, in particular for services, for purposes of manpower policies

According to the report, all companies under the services classification - from financial, insurance, real estate, infocomm & businesses to commerce, to community, social & personal - are subject to the same work permit requirements such as migrant worker source countries, maximum period of employment, quota on dependency ratio ceiling (DRC) on the number of work permit holders (WPHs) that they can employ and the corresponding levy rate. This broad classification does not reflect labour market dynamics such as the nature of work, education level, job demand, and resident labour force supply across the significantly different services industries.

It is imperative to recognise that the job roles in knowledge-intensive activities like finance and insurance, ICT, and professional services are fundamentally different to that of waste management, cleaning, and EFM, the key objective of R7.

With that, the analysts believe that there is "an opportunity" to review this and Tripartite Partners can work together on a more nuanced classification of business activity, particularly for services, so that more differentiated policy interventions can be applied to address specific manpower challenges. "For example, given the dependence of lifestyle services on casual labour, there may be merit to aggregate the hours worked by all local casual labour and compute them as headcounts that can count towards the quota for hiring foreign workers," shared in the report.

Beyond that, there is "also an opportunity" to recalibrate the DRC and related foreign manpower policies for services at sub-sector level in order to better allocate foreign manpower to industries in most need of this augmentation without upsetting the overall foreign manpower balance.

Recommendation 8 (R8): Tripartite Partners to work together to review expansion of Non-Traditional Sources (NTS) Occupation List and diversification of NTS countries

For context, at the Committee of Supply (COS) 2022 debate, Ministry of Manpower (MOM) introduced the NTS Occupation List that will come into effect on 1 September 2023. The list applies to a very restricted set of occupations that employ very few locals and for which employers can hire WPHs from NTS countries. For instance, the manufacturing & services sectors can only hire migrant workers from Malaysia, Mainland China, and North Asian territories like Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Using R8, the analysts shared that the NTS Occupation List can be expanded to include rank-and-file (RnF) occupations in environmental services, such as general waste collection crew, recyclable sorters, waste treatment and disposal workers. In addition, the Tripartite Partners in consultation with the relevant TACs can study the case for the inclusion of other occupations, such as those among the top 10 non-PMET job vacancies, into the NTS Occupation List.

In addition, Tripartite Partners can work together on expanding the list of NTS countries to diversify Singapore’s foreign labour sources, with particular consideration towards the available labour pool which has the propensity to engage in labour migration in order to improve earning opportunities.

Recommendation 9 (R9): Government to support access to international students enrolled in, and recent graduates from, training programmes related to lifestyle services, environmental services, and EFM services

"International students and recent graduates are a valued source of labour for lifestyle services, environmental services, and EFM services. As these students are already in-country and typically stay for at least 12 to 18 months, there is an opportunity for them to contribute to the economy without placing additional stress on our infrastructure. Currently, internships are only permitted for full-time international students in approved institutions," highlighted in the report.

On that note, at the core of R9, analysts at SBF said the government can consider allowing international students studying in services-related programmes in EduTrust-certified Private Education Institutions (PEIs) to take on internship opportunities and part time work related to their training courses. In addition, regardless of nationality, recent graduates of IHLs, approved industry academies such as SHATEC, and EduTrust-certified PEIs can be offered time-bound work passes to work in services industries related to their field of study.

Read also: Burnout, poor work-life balance, low productivity: The vicious cycle hitting Malaysia & Singapore employees


*For a brief understanding, per the report, talent refers to a diverse pool of players and intentional line-up selection, meanwhile teamwork is defined as a synergistic effort to improve manpower utilisation and allocation, and rules is about a more targeted and nuanced manpower policy.

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