For the first time since 2003, Singapore's overall employment fell last year. However the number of jobs taken by Singaporean citizens and permanent residents grew slightly in 2017 compared to 2016, according to the latest city state government data.

The numbers reflect the government’s continued push towards strengthening its core Singaporean workforce, experts say, although more training and mentoring is needed to make locals’ productivity more competitive internationally, they warned.

According to the Labour Market Advance Release Q4 2017 published in January by the Ministry of Manpower, total employment (excluding foreign domestic workers) was estimated to have declined by 10,700 or -0.3 per cent in 2017 year-on-year, with reductions in the number of foreigners employed in Singapore a key reason for the shift – they dropped 32,000 or 2.8 per cent in 2017 compared to the previous year.

However, the number of employment positions undertaken by Singaporeans (including permanent residents) grew by an estimated 21,300 or 0.9 per cent in 2017, according to ministry data. And the number of people losing their jobs (foreigners and locals) stood at 14,340, significantly lower than the 2016 figure of 19,170.

Going by this data, it is noteworthy that the government is trying to “strike the right balance between having to rely on foreign talent and nurturing local talent” and is doing so without compromising competitiveness, DecodeHR managing director Evelyn Chow told People Management. “Singapore was able to maintain its number two spot in 2017 in the Global Talent Competitiveness Index, which it has held for four years in a row.” But it may not be easy to keep this competitive edge given demographic challenges, she warned. “The nation's ageing workforce does indeed pose a real concern in a rapidly changing and highly competitive global economy,” Chow said. It means Singapore will continue to need a “combination of vibrant Singaporean talent plus strong foreign talent”. Asia is highly appealing to global talent and Singapore is well poised to attract the brightest minds to the island, she said, adding: “The challenge is ensuring that the workforce has what it takes for the nation to continue to compete effectively in the international arena.”

The Ministry of Manpower admitted too that “job-skills mismatch continues to be a growing structural challenge due to ongoing economic restructuring and shifts in composition of the resident labour force.” With local employment expected to continue to grow in 2018, according to ministry data, the government will press ahead with efforts to reskill and seize new job opportunities through its initiatives – the Lean Enterprise Development Scheme, SkillsFuture and Adapt and Grow.

Chow added that the Future Economy Council (FEC) of Singapore, a national group overseeing skills and innovation efforts announced in May 2017, has identified “developing a future-ready resident labour force” as a key goal. However, it could take a considerable amount of time before any outcomes materialise, as there are longer-term initiatives that will be implemented through institutes of higher learning.

In the short term at least, Singaporean employers are bracing themselves for a tough time. "They face the challenge of helping employees cope with the pressure of having to deal with change and a steep learning curve,” said Chow. It is important management understands that change can be particularly hard for older workers who are not used to automating processes or having to learn to use technology on a daily basis, she added.

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