SINGAPORE: Some restaurants have been on the lookout for workers to fill about 1,000 positions as business picked up with the return of dine-in services, but for more than a month, there have been no takers.
These positions were made available as early as Sep 14, when Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said that the Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS) is working with its members to provide more than 1,000 job opportunities to retrenched staff from Singapore Airlines (SIA).
According to the RAS on Friday (Oct 30), none of the positions offered has been taken up.
The jobs cut across front-end and back-of-house roles which include service crew, kitchen helpers, chefs and managers, it added. Salaries range from S$1,300 to S$7,000 a month.
The RAS has been working directly with SIA on promoting the vacancies, its spokesperson told CNA.
Besides the aviation sector, the association is also working with Workforce Singapore (WSG), as well as the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and its Employment and Employability Institute, to attract those who lost jobs in the hospitality and tourism sectors to make the switch to food and beverage (F&B).
While higher-skilled managerial roles such as outlet managers will require some relevant experience, F&B operators are “willing and open to training newcomers” for service-related roles, said RAS.
“So far, unfortunately, we have not received positive responses from companies within these sectors,” the spokesperson added.
BREWING MANPOWER CRUNCH
The F&B industry was among the worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly when dine-in services were banned during the “circuit breaker”, pushing businesses to let go of employees to survive.
Minor Food Singapore, for instance, had to let go of 10 per cent of its foreign manpower as it tried “to protect as many (local) jobs as possible”, its chief executive Dellen Soh said.
“During the circuit breaker, there was a lot of restructuring and many in the F&B industry were operating on very lean manpower just to survive and pull through that period,” Mr Soh added.
But as the economy reopened with the resumption of dine-ins, many F&B operators found themselves struggling with a labour crunch.
The implementation of safe management measures, for one, required dedicated manpower, said RAS.
These could range from temperature taking to reminding customers of rules such as putting their masks back on when they are no longer eating. For others, it could involve a bigger change in operations.
Ms Bonnie Wong, chief operations officer of Creative Eateries, cited one of the group’s brands – Japanese buffet restaurant Suki-Ya – as an example.
“The restaurant used to be self-service but today, we serve customers everything at their tables. So we suddenly require a lot more manpower but that is not something we can find overnight,” she said.
F&B businesses told CNA that even in a grim labour market with rising unemployment, they have had little luck hiring Singaporeans.
Creative Eateries has been exploring “all avenues to get resumes” such as joining job fairs and getting recommendations from business partners, but some of its new hires threw in the towel after the first day or simply did not show up. The company still has about 40 vacancies at the moment.
“We hire people on a weekly basis but it’s really hard to find people who stay,” said Ms Wong.
Mr Soh said F&B jobs were never popular among Singaporeans to begin with, due to the long working hours and shift work requirements. The pandemic and its impact on jobs hardly shifted the needle.
“It’s funny that some sectors are retrenching but we are struggling to find workers … With the current situation, you can see that F&B jobs are really not on top of the minds of Singaporeans even when there’s high unemployment.”
Getting foreign workers, which the industry has been reliant on, is now an uphill task.
RAS said businesses have faced difficulties renewing work pass applications for their foreign workers, with border controls adding to the hiring challenge.
There is also the tighter dependency ratio ceiling (DRC), which refers to the proportion of foreigners a company is allowed to hire, and a higher salary threshold for S Passes to contend with.
READ: Business owners in F&B, retail and construction raise concerns about rise in S Pass qualifying salary
Currently, the F&B services sector faces a 38 per cent DRC and 13 per cent S Pass sub-DRC, which will drop to 35 per cent and 10 per cent respectively in January next year.
Meanwhile, the minimum qualifying salary for S Passes, which are for mid-skilled staff, went up by S$100 to S$2,500 last month. It marked the second increase this year.
“All these are unfortunately happening at a time when things are picking up and most of us are trying our best to make up for what has been lost in the past six months," said Mr Soh, whose company is looking to hire at least 50 people.
New openings in the industry will also compound the manpower situation.
“Forward-looking F&B companies take this opportunity during COVID-19 to pivot and expand their business to better position themselves for the economic upturn when it comes,” said the RAS spokesperson.
All these mean that the labour shortage could only get worse, especially when Phase 3 of the economic reopening comes around.
“Usually around the year-end, there will be many company dinners, award or gala dinners but without these, all the service crew for that are now part-timing in restaurants. If Phase 3 comes and such events are allowed to resume, hotels will start hiring and these part-timers that we have will be gone as well,” said Ms Wong.
“Even those in F&B and hospitality that are still sleeping temporarily, like the bars and caterers, could come back alive in Phase 3. The demand (for manpower) will only keep going up.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE
F&B operators are already looking at how to reduce manpower needs through digitalisation and revamping work processes.
For example, the menu at Minor Food Singapore’s newly opened western grill restaurant was crafted with “simpler” kitchen processes in mind.
“We have to reengineer the menu to make the kitchen preparation processes much simpler so that even less-experienced workers can fulfil the tasks," said Mr Soh.
"The important process – cooking – will still be fulfilled by the chefs but instead of hiring five experienced cooks, I can now hire three chefs and have kitchen helpers do the rest."
Still, simplifying processes and automation can only go so far as the F&B industry remains a service-oriented industry.
Said Ms Wong: “We are already rolling out self-ordering at our restaurants but this is a fine balance as customers still want to feel like they are taken care of.”
A mindset shift among workers will still be needed.
“The F&B sector offers exciting careers with a diverse range of roles, from service-related roles to managerial roles, giving our workforce the opportunity to build a meaningful career,” said the RAS spokesperson.
“While F&B companies continue to redesign and improve their operations workflow and job roles, it is important to note that a societal culture shift in a service mindset has to happen,” he added.
“Contrary to other societies where service roles are treated with dignity and respect, perhaps we need to start such mindshare early, perhaps even when they are still in their teens.”
On how it will fill the vacant positions, RAS said it continues to work with various partners, including WSG and NTUC, to “extend the job opportunities in the F&B sector to the wider public”.
It is also in the midst of working with WSG to organise an F&B-focused virtual career fair to reach out to those who are keen on a career in the industry.