The manpower-starved food and hotel sectors are getting a massive boost at a major trade fair this week.
For the first time, NTUC's Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) will give firms on-the-spot approval for grants to help purchase productivity-raising equipment at the Food&HotelAsia (FHA) 2014, which opens on Tuesday at the Singapore Expo.
The largest of its kind in Asia, the four-day event, with more than 3,000 exhibitors, expects to draw at least 45,000 visitors.
E2i will fund up to half the cost of the equipment, with 30 per cent upfront, said its chief executive Gilbert Tan. This will be capped at a sum of $150,000 for each project, although companies can apply more than once.
This is part of the institute's $100 million Inclusive Growth Programme, which supports companies to automate and redesign jobs, while sharing productivity gains with low-wage workers. Since its inception four years ago, it has funded about 270 projects for F&B companies and hotels.
"More companies are embarking on productivity drives, but many of them are small and medium enterprises which may not have the funds to buy such equipment so they will benefit from this," he said.
Three companies have already seen their proposals recently approved ahead of the trade fair, he revealed.
One is caterer Food Fest, which is looking for combi ovens, vegetable cutters and deep fryers at FHA2014. The equipment, which comes with self-timers and can cook more chicken, will free up workers from having to monitor the cooking. Food Fest's director of catering sales Thomas Chia said the cost savings will be used to raise wages for 40 of his 300 staff.
The move to bolster productivity comes in the face of a prolonged and possibly permanent labour shortage in the food and hotel industry.
But rather than be constrained by the manpower crunch, companies should "adopt a solutions-driven mindset and start innovating", noted Mr Tan.
One instance of this is an "exchange programme" for workers from different restaurants to learn about one another's operations.
"Later on... workers of one restaurant can support another in times of a crunch," said Food and Beverage Managers' Association (FBMA) president Cheong Hai Poh, who is piloting the initiative.
Mr David Leong, managing director of recruitment firm PeopleWorldWide which services more than 100 clients including restaurants and hotels, said a mindset adjustment is starting to take place.
"At first, most operators thought the decrease in foreign worker quota and increase in levies were an interim measure. But now they realise this 'pain' will go on and are relooking their processes to be more innovative."
Singapore Hotel Association's (SHA) executive director Margaret Heng agreed that the long-term solution is to "embrace a mindset change and to optimise resources".
An SHA manpower survey found that the average manpower shortage across the hotel industry for the first half of last year was about 10.6 per cent. This was "particularly acute" at the rank-and-file level, for example, room attendants and food servers, said Ms Heng.
This was also the case for the food industry, which currently averages a monthly turnover of about 4.6 per cent, said Mr Cheong.
But he dismissed the notion that low pay was a major push factor, pointing out that wages have in fact increased across the board in recent years. For instance, a waiter at a restaurant now gets $1,500 or more a month, up from around $1,200 three years ago, he said.
Still, he did point out that many workers have to start from entry-level positions even if they have relevant qualifications. This leads diploma-holders in F&B and hospitality studies to look elsewhere for work.
"But now, more companies have started career development plans for their employees," he said.
FBMA, for instance, has an ongoing scheme to guide members of its Youth Wing who are under 27 plan their career paths.
Ms Heng has also observed more department heads and managers in their early 30s in recent years.
She said: "Attracting people into the industry is only part of the equation. The other integral part is talent retention."
This article was published on April 6 in The Straits Times.
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