SINGAPORE - Employers should view Singaporeans favourably when hiring and retain citizens over foreigners if retrenchment cannot be avoided, said Minister of State for Manpower and Education Gan Siow Huang.
Having a strong Singaporean presence in a company also enhances the resilience of the business in times when border controls can have an impact of the supply of foreign workers, she added.
Speaking in Parliament on Monday (Aug 31) during the debate on the President's Address, Ms Gan said: "In the current crisis, where there are not enough jobs for locals, we need to work with employers so that Singaporean job seekers will be viewed favourably when applying for jobs, especially given the government incentives."
Looking after Singaporean employees also strengthens trust between them and the employer, she added.
Ms Gan also provided an update on the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Programme. As of July, the Government and tripartite partners helped 25,000 people link up with new opportunities, she said.
Of the remaining places available, there are over 47,000 jobs, 16,000 traineeships, and more than 10,000 training places, she added.
Acknowledging the heightened sense of anxiety among Singaporeans about job security, Ms Gan said: "In circumstances where retrenchment is unavoidable, and an employer has to choose between a foreigner and a Singaporean, I urge the employer to lean towards keeping the Singaporean.
"In short, if employers must retrench, retain the Singaporean over the foreigner."
This should be done for jobs like engineers and IT professionals. This first category of jobs are those Singaporeans want to and can do, but for which foreigners are needed during periods of economic growth to help meet demand, she said.
For a second category of jobs, in essential services such as construction and cleaning - which are not so popular with Singaporeans despite efforts to transform them - foreign workers will be needed to complement the local workforce, said Ms Gan.
The aim, she added, should be to reduce the reliance on foreigners through job redesign and technology adoption.
For instance, the construction sector has created new and higher-skilled jobs through Design for Manufacturing and Assembly, which requires more production managers, quality assurance personnel, and logistics and supply chain planners, now that construction work has shifted offsite to automated production facilities, said Ms Gan.
For the third category of jobs, in global and regional companies that require global teams and certain professionals with highly specialised skills, the aim is to have Singaporeans as part of diverse teams, she added.
The Government also wants such companies to groom local talent so that Singaporeans have a fair shot at senior and top management positions, said Ms Gan.
She cited the experience of Ms Tan Chee Wei, vice-president of human resources for the Asian region at energy giant Shell, who rose through the ranks from a human resources generalist over the last 18 years.
The 46-year-old Singaporean spent a few years in London as a global HR adviser and also took on regional roles in organisational development and talent management, before being promoted to vice-president this year, said Ms Gan.
With rising unemployment amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Manpower has had to tighten the foreign work-pass policy and work more closely with employers and unions to uphold fair hiring and retrenchment. This is even as Singapore needs to stay open and provide businesses with access to global expertise and talent, said Ms Gan.
To reduce the nation's reliance on foreigners in a sustained way, work productivity must be increased to bring down the overall demand for labour as the population ages, she added.
Ms Gan said that last year, about 63 per cent of the citizen population were between 20 and 64 years old, or working age. In 10 years, this is projected to drop to about 56 per cent.
The total fertility rate also needs to rise such that a critical mass of Singaporeans is maintained in the labour force, she added.
Ms Gan also touched on the importance of investing in building up skills so that the local workforce will be adaptive and skilled in diverse fields, and remain highly employable in the face of disruption.
Going for training now could also help displaced Singaporeans have a better chance to get a new job when the economy recovers, she added.
Ms Gan said there is a need for Singaporeans to differentiate themselves from others by being identified with the values of openness, multiculturalism and self-determination.
Ms Gan concluded her speech with a Chinese phrase on the duty of a government to protect the people from "wind and rain", and said the Government will do its best to ensure fair opportunities for Singaporeans to get jobs, and support Singaporeans in acquiring skills.
She said: "We will spare no effort to strengthen the Singaporean core, and walk the journey with every Singaporean. Because our people are our only asset, and every Singaporean counts."
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.