Protecting the Singaporean core was the dominating concern of 50 government, business and labour leaders at a closed-door discussion on Tuesday evening, as they grappled with the prospect of a slow-growing workforce.
The key takeaway from what participants described as a "very candid" discussion was this: As long as companies keep their focus on hiring a Singaporean core, the government will allow a more flexible labour market for companies to grow their business.
A company can then import the critical skills it wants if it cannot find them in Singapore, said Robert Yap, the president of Singapore National Employers Federation and host of the "roundtable" discussion. However, he added that this was contingent on the skills being for businesses with spinoffs for Singapore, and on the company having a "clear plan" to train Singaporeans to take over from the foreign talent.
Dr Yap told reporters after the two-hour session that training was another key concern of the participants, who included Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say and labour chief Chan Chun Sing. It was agreed that if workers were to become scarcer, one way to overcome the labour shortage was to build up the skills of existing workers and improve productivity.
And there is no better time to train workers and to invest in productive machines and equipment than now - when a soft economy offers plenty of down-time to do both, said Dr Yap.
The indication is that training will be pursued more aggressively - and the government will give more support to "industry champions" who will train workers for future jobs, he said.
In the opening addresses, to which reporters were invited, Dr Yap listed three groups of challenges Singapore is likely to face:
The first is workforce demographics. Apart from an ageing workforce, the country has to meet the higher expectations of better-educated workers.
The second group of challenges lies in new business models, new technologies, new jobs and new skills, and the third, the productivity-wage gap, the uplifting of low-age workers and the productivity gap between smaller and larger firms.
Labour leader Chan Chun Sing said his big headache to ensure that there were enough "meaningful" jobs. Another of his concerns was the training and preparing of workers for the next lap in global competition.
Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say drew three likely outcomes when the labour force growth peaks. The first is an "ugly" one - when persistent low productivity forces a U-turn on the restrictive foreign worker policy, which will eventually turn local workers into the minority in the workforce.
The second, a "bad" outcome, will come to pass when low productivity and low labour force growth leads to economic stagnation; the third outcome, a "good" one, is when productivity rises and lifts economic growth, although the labour force has stopped growing.
To ensure a "good" outcome, he said, Singapore must complete its economic restructuring, pull together to make better use of manpower, achieve a better match between supply and demand of labour and make human resource practices more progressive "to transform workers into human capital".
This article was first published on Feb 3, 2016.
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