Long hours, thankless job: Singapore's security sector struggles to secure talent

Long hours, thankless job: Singapore's security sector struggles to secure talent

The private security industry's manpower shortage is in the spotlight after two auxiliary police forces said they are turning to Taiwan to fill their vacancies. What will it take to solve the perennial labour crunch in this sector?

SINGAPORE: It was 8pm on a Tuesday night and as weary office workers left the company's premises, Mr Abdul Rahim's* day had only just begun.

Dressed in a dark blue uniform and armed with a revolver, the auxiliary police officer (APO) took his position at the entrance where he would be carrying out security checks and patrolling duties for the next 12 hours.

"You see me standing guard here most of the time, but if anything happens inside (the building), I will have to be there within a few minutes to check if everything is all right," said the 47-year-old Singaporean.

Trained in areas such as handling firearms and counter-terrorism, APOs are deployed in a range of functions including protecting key installations and non-governmental premises such as commercial banks, as well as supporting police deployment at major events like the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix. APOs are also given police powers to search and arrest offenders when on duty, and can escort persons in custody.

With a 3,500-strong team, private security firm Certis CISCO is the biggest auxiliary police force (APF) in Singapore, followed by AETOS and SATS Security Services. In total, there are about 7,000 APOs, with more than half being Singaporeans, according to Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam last April.

But more are needed and it is a struggle to meet demand. Since 2011, APFs have managed to expand their pool of Singaporean APOs by only 250, falling short of the demand for APOs which is projected to exceed 600 over the next few years, according to a police spokesman. Citing difficulties in attracting locals and recruiting qualified Malaysians, Certis CISCO and AETOS have recently said they are looking to Taiwan to fill their vacancies.

After being on the job for nearly a decade, Mr Abdul said he has adjusted to the gruelling work demands of an APO such as having to be on his feet for long hours. While there are many like him, there are also those who quit within months - usually new officers from the younger generation.

"Youngsters cannot stand the long hours. They need enjoyment, but this job leaves you with no time or energy for that. I know some parents support these youngsters to quit and will help to pay the penalty for breaking the bond."

An auxiliary police officer from AETOS carrying out surveillance work at the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix. (Photo: AETOS)

AETOS, which currently has around 2,600 APOs, told Channel NewsAsia that locals are largely put off by the nature of the job, which can be "both physically and mentally strenuous" while having to endure "tough working conditions" such as harsh weather and the need to work shifts. Younger Singaporeans, who "tend to have a different job outlook and job expectations", have found it hard to accept these requirements, a spokesman said.

For 29-year-old Vincent Teo*, it was the long working hours that eventually cemented his decision to call it quits last year. During his three years as an APO, he said he has had 24-hour shifts with only a few hours of rest in between.

"Being an auxiliary police officer can be fun," he told Channel NewsAsia. "You get to help people and do things that a normal member of public wouldn’t be able to do ... but the working hours are crazy and the manpower shortage doesn't help."

INDUSTRY-WIDE LABOUR CRUNCH

To be sure, the tight labour market is not restricted to the APFs. Within the unarmed security sector, which accounts for the biggest number of workers in the local security industry, long working hours and stagnant low wages have made jobs in the sector unattractive to many over the years.

"One month was more than enough," said Mr Victor Ang, as he recalled his short stint as a shopping centre security guard more than a decade ago. The Singaporean toiled six days a week in 12-hour shifts and was paid around S$45 for a day's work as a part-timer.

"It was quick money because you could get your pay in two weeks and I needed the cash. There were patrolling duties every hour across several levels ... walk until leg pain (sic) and I used my day off to catch up on sleep, but it's never enough," added Mr Ang, 42, who is now a certified security trainer and runs his own company making GPS-enabled security devices for senior citizens.

Last September, the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), which aims to raise the pay of security officers while making sure that their skills and careers progressed in tandem, came into effect for the sector. According to the executive director of the Union of Security Employees (USE) Steve Tan, the new five-level wage ladder marked an "important first step".

"Look around the world, nowhere else is a security officer a low-wage job. Why would you pay a low-wage worker to guard your most prized assets? That doesn't make sense," he told Channel NewsAsia.

Under the PWM, a security officer's minimum-level basic wage is S$1,100 and as he or she fulfils the training requirements for each rung, the officer will be able to rise up the wage ladder and eventually command a salary of more than S$1,700 as a chief security officer. As of last month, the majority of Singapore’s 250 security agencies are in compliance with the PWM's requirements.

"There is never a good time (to implement the PWM) but we have to break this vicious cycle and the PWM is the important first step," said Mr Tan, even though he emphasised that the model is "not a panacea to solve all problems".

Photo of a security officer from AETOS. (Photo: AETOS)

For one, the problem of long working hours and arduous overtime remains. Bosses of security agencies said a slowing economy, which makes those that hire security services think twice about their expenses in preparation for leaner months ahead, has not helped them to improve the situation.

Given the cost that comes with an additional headcount or a part-timer should the man hours for each security officer be reduced, some clients have been reluctant to accept an alternative arrangement to the 12-hour shift. Agencies bidding to retain a contract with workers due for a pay rise will also have to compete with rivals who undercut them in tender bids by basing their cost on entry-level pay rates.

"For clients that we can 'pull strings' with, they are sometimes able to give our officers an additional day off or two but there are not many of such clients," SpinnetAsia's managing director, K V Kumanan, said.

"Some of them say: 'The security guards just sit down there and look at people coming in and out. They are idling most of the time.' Now with a poorer economy, they don't want to pay more for security but they need to understand that these officers work for 12 or more hours for so many days a week. How can they not feel tired and break down? I mean, even the MRT breaks down, right?"

SOME HELP FROM TECHNOLOGY

With the labour shortage likely to persist, several private security firms have tapped technology to help ease the workload of existing workers and boost productivity.

At risk management and security agency TwinRock Global, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras have been installed at certain sites to enable off-site monitoring and reduce the need for security guards on the ground. It has also encouraged some of its residential clients to go "guard-less" with access control devices like automated barriers.

In addition, the two-year-old local firm invested more than S$50,000 in a real-time reporting system named THOR, which will be available as a smartphone app to help speed up daily work processes.

"There are still many manual work processes now, with a lot of books and recording involved. Even attendance is sometimes done by calling each site manually. We want to do away with that," said managing director Raj Joshua Thomas.

"With THOR, when an officer reports for work, he just needs to take a picture of himself in the app which will be geotagged. Throughout the day, the app tells him about his schedule and for each task, he can indicate whether he has completed it such as scanning the QR codes around a facility when he is on patrol. Each of these will be sent to the headquarters and clients in real time." It is still in its testing phase and Mr Thomas expects the company's app to be fully rolled out by mid-2017.

TwinRock Global hopes this real-time reporting system named THOR can help to speed up daily work processes. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

Over at Certis CISCO's 24-hour integrated operations centre, traditional methods of surveillance such as having officers scrutinising CCTV screens have since been replaced by modern CCTV systems equipped with video content analytics (VCA) technology. The VCA technology can identify loitering behaviour or detect the action of people prying open a shopping centre's glass doors for instance, according to Mr Tristan Sim who heads the operations centre.

The private security firm has also worked with CapitaLand Malls to design "new security technology solutions that can automate or complement the functions of a security guard" via its business process re-engineering operations.

For example, malls such as Plaza Singapura are now installed with smart CCTVs that can monitor traffic flow in the carpark or vehicle drop-off points, removing the need for a security officer to be stationed there all day. Such uses of technology have reduced security manpower requirements by 20 per cent, according to Mr Sim.

Moving forward, Certis CISCO has set its sights on harnessing artificial intelligence (AI).

"What we intend to do is to (merge) AI with our VCA cameras and so instead of detecting simple algorithms like line-crossing movements, we can use AI to pick out anomalies and behaviours like people fighting or congregations of large groups of people at certain areas. If this can be done, the manpower requirements at our operations centre can be reduced as well," Mr Sim added.

A LONGER-TERM SOLUTION?

However, industry players and observers acknowledge that while technology can help to boost productivity, it has its limitations and will not be able to replace a human being entirely.

As such, more effective planning and utilisation of manpower will be needed in the long run to cope with a tight labour market. For that, USE's Mr Tan proposed making security assessment a mandatory requirement across all developments before a security contract is called.

"For the buyers, a security contract involves a technology contract and a manpower contract, and they are seldom called together. There's an impact on the security agency because it is not consulted on the technology, which means that it will have to operate whatever that has been chosen even when it may not be the best technology.

"Today, the security assessment is only mandatory if it’s a key installation. It will be able to assess if a place needs security officers and can be replaced by technology ... if the standards are already there, why not open it up to the whole industry?"

Using Sweden as an example, Mr Tan added that the labour crunch in Singapore is not as dire as it seems and can be resolved if the industry figures out how to deploy manpower in the correct manner.

"Sweden has twice the population at 9.5 million but they only have 20,000 security officers. With 41,000 security officers here, I don’t think it’s a manpower shortage problem we are talking about. We are just not using manpower correctly," he said, referring to how some security officers have concierge and cleaning duties included in their daily job scope.

"Security is an important job and our security guys cannot be doing mundane chores on top of their basic duties. Only when this is improved, then can security have a shot at becoming a respected and highly valued job."

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS

But this perception of a "dead-end job" is a stigma that will likely take time to change.

TwinRock Global's Mr Thomas recalled being booed by students at a local Institute of Technical Education (ITE) prior to a presentation about his company.

"At the start of the talk, I was booed. The students said: 'Go home, lah. This is not something we are interested in' almost immediately after I said I am from the security industry," said the former lawyer who quit his job to take over the family business last year.

While industry observers have said the PMW can help to attract new blood to the industry, more needs to be done. For one, industry players should consider sweetening their employee benefits with performance-based bonuses and job rotations, as well as provide a more conducive work-life balance, suggested Mr Jeffrey Seah, head of the Security Industry Institute at Temasek Polytechnic.

And this is what TwinRock Global is moving towards, with newly-implemented benefits such as birthday leave and an additional monthly performance-based allowance for officers who meet its expectations. The company is also taking the PWM a step further, with its own progressive career paths.

"At our company, you can start off as a security officer, but we will give you training about fire safety, flying a drone, skills you need for close protection duties ... and with these training, you can eventually become an instructor and start training new security officers," Mr Thomas said.

"It is unfortunate that there is a stigma on the profession in Singapore, so to show that this can be a real profession, we've came up with this programme for our officers. I talked about this at the ITE and luckily by the end of my talk, the students seemed happy and boos became applause."

File photo of an auxiliary police officer in Singapore. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

But it is not just unarmed security officers who have to grapple with this stigma. APOs also face this problem, according to Mr Abdul.

"The weirdest comment I've heard about my job is because we are guarding this place, they call us guard dogs. What you do, people don't see and what is there to appreciate when they don’t see. It is a thankless job."

But Mr Abdul does not let these get to him and plans to stay on the job until he retires.

"For me, I have all along been in the security sector ... I like it that this job allows me to interact with people and most importantly, I am given a task to secure and take care of the place I am posted to," he told Channel NewsAsia. "This is my responsibility and I will do it."

*Note: The names of the auxiliary police officers in this story have been changed as they spoke to Channel NewsAsia on condition of anonymity.

Additional reporting by Leong Wai Kit @LeongWaiKitCNA. Follow Tang See Kit on Twitter @SeeKitCNA.

Source: CNA/sk