Staffing woes 'put survival of smaller firms at risk'

PHOTO: Staffing woes 'put survival of smaller firms at risk'

WHEN Dynaforce advertised for an administrative assistant two months ago, it got a rude shock about the state of the employment market and the reluctance of locals to take on certain jobs.

The firm that makes fitness and wellness products received 30 responses to its job advertisement but only 10 were Singaporeans and just two agreed to an interview. One was not suitable, while the other did not turn up.

"She was still sleeping 30 minutes before our meeting," Dynaforce founder and chairman Jimmie Lee told The Straits Times.

That left Mr Lee no choice but to get a foreigner even though he had hoped all along to hire a local.

Dynaforce is not alone in facing staffing woes. Companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), are finding it harder to hire Singaporeans.

This problem is seen across most sectors and could threaten the survival of some smaller firms, said the Singapore Business Federation (SBF).

Even the services sector, which usually offers work in an air-conditioned environment, has not been spared.

"It's very prevalent and occurs almost across all companies now, as there are more jobs than the number of workers available," said SBF chief operating officer Victor Tay.

Earlier this week, the Ministry of Trade and Industry warned that there are limits to the growth of the local workforce which will in turn hold back economic growth unless foreign workers continue to be allowed in.

An SBF-led committee responded by noting that many SMEs are scaling down, considering relocating or even shutting down due to manpower woes.

Mr Tay said: "Now it's a survival issue which is especially chronic for the smaller set-ups. If they can't get the workers, they either have to close shop or relocate."

Employers told a recent focus group organised by the SBF-led committee that they prefer local workers and are willing to pay them more than foreign workers.

However, they all admitted that they had failed to hire locals, with most indicating that locals did not respond to job ads.

Many also said Singaporeans could not accept working conditions such as shift work, exposure to the hot sun and working in industrial areas like Tuas, Jurong and Loyang, which are seen as being far from home.

Being located in Tuas makes it very difficult for piping and heat transfer firm Heatec Jietong to hire and retain Singaporean staff.

Chairman and chief executive Johnny Soon said: "Our office is not a fancy office like those in Raffles Place. It's in the middle of an industrial area."

That makes it a challenge to get local project engineers or accounts clerks.

Mr Soon said two to three out of 10 applicants who come for interviews are Singaporeans but "when they hear that the interview is in Tuas, some don't even bother to come".

Where staff live is also a crucial factor, added Mr Soon, who noted that people living outside the western part of the island tend to resign "very quickly".

Even large firms like Wing Tai Retail, which distributes well-known fashion brands in Singapore such as Uniqlo and Topshop, are not spared. It has difficulty finding front-line service staff such as shop supervisors and fashion coordinators.

Even the lure of a good work location with an air-con environment is not attractive enough for Singaporeans.

Wing Tai Retail executive director Helen Khoo said: "They don't like the work hours, having to go on shift and working on weekends."

For instance, the firm interviewed 77 Singaporean applicants at a job fair earlier this month and selected four full-time and 10 part-time staff for Uniqlo.

"We've been trying to reach them to ask them to come down for training, but there's no response so far," said Mrs Khoo.