Singapore’s Labor Market Is Showing Strain as Economy Slows
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Singapore’s resilient labor market is starting to come under strain as the trade-reliant economy struggles in the face of global pressures.
Retrenchments are rising, companies are more cautious raising wages, and it’s getting harder for those who lose their jobs to find new work. While the central bank is optimistic of some recovery in the economy in upcoming quarters, there are signs the employment outlook may continue to deteriorate.
Analysts are closely watching Singapore’s net employment data, job vacancies, average monthly earnings, and unemployment rates. Here’s a look at what the labor-market gauges tell us about the outlook:
Net Employment Outlook
Among 669 hiring managers in Singapore, attitudes toward the employment outlook in the final three months of the year are at their most pessimistic since the third quarter of 2017, according to the most recent ManpowerGroup survey released in September.
The difference between those saying staff numbers will increase in the fourth quarter versus those predicting a decrease is a slim 5 percentage points, the data show. Respondents in the manufacturer sector, which has been especially hard hit by the U.S.-China trade war, expect the weakest performance in a decade, according to Lee Ju Ye, an economist at Maybank Kim Eng Research Pte Ltd.
Selena Ling, head of treasury research and strategy at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. in Singapore, has her eyes on the job vacancy-to-unemployed ratio. DBS Group Holdings Ltd.’s Irvin Seah and Maybank’s Lee also closely track this gauge.
The measure slipped below 1 in the second quarter for the first time since the end of 2017, showing the city state’s jobless outnumbered open roles.
“The job vacancy-to-unemployed person ratio is key to me and it has dipped below parity, suggesting a softening in the labor market,” said Seah.
Average Monthly Earnings
Paychecks also have been feeling the pinch, at least through the first half of this year. Average monthly earnings rose 2.1% in the three months through June, the slowest pace since the start of 2017.
Two unemployment rates tracked in Singapore -- one for citizens, and the other for citizens and permanent residents -- have been on the rise for the past few quarters. While still below their post-recession peaks, neither measure has seen a quarterly decline in almost two years and each has been worsening of late.
Retrenchments climbed to 2,900 in the third quarter, after easing in the previous three months, according to advanced quarterly data released last week. The biggest losses were in the services industries, although manufacturing and construction also saw job cuts.
The Ministry of Manpower will provide more detailed information about retrenchments in an upcoming report, including whether terminations among professionals, managers, executives, and technicians -- or PMETs -- rose again in the quarter.
That’s a cause for worry for Seah.
“I look at the PMET share of retrenchment because this is the most vulnerable segment in the market,” he said before the advance quarterly report was released. “This is against conventional wisdom as most people assume that the lower-wage workers are more prone to retrenchment, which is not the case in Singapore.”
Ling is also tracking how fast retrenched workers find new jobs, which offers more bleak news.
The government tallies the share of retrenched who return to employment within six months, for any given quarter. That “re-entry” rate dropped sharply to 59.9% as of the second quarter, with those with “diploma and professional qualifications” declining to 57.7% from 70.9% in the first quarter.
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