SINGAPORE: After leaving travel company ezeego1 last February, Mr Norman Chew was able to get through the year doing freelance consultancy work, organising tours and conducting interviews for a research team at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
The travel industry veteran in his 50s got a couple of job offers from headhunters and former clients, but he did not take them up as he felt they were not the right fit.
This year, however, with the NUS project put on hold and tourism gigs all but dried up because of COVID-19, Mr Chew says he has submitted about 1,000 job applications. These include submissions to companies outside the travel industry and those offering career conversion programmes through the Government.
He has not had any success in landing a new job.
“I’ve had to eat into my savings. It's been frustrating - I can’t cut back on my expenses because I have commitments to take care of,” said Mr Chew, who had hired a maid to look after his father.
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Like Mr Chew, Ms Drishti Mulani has sent out "lots of applications" - not just in her field of public relations but also in sales, recruitment and marketing.
She lost her job with HOOQ in April after the streaming service was shut down.
“It (the job search) started slow but I feel there’s a lot more movement as of July and I'm on final round with a few companies now,” said the 32-year-old, adding that she is “extremely grateful” to be Singaporean because the situation would be much harder as a foreigner.
But it is still a challenge, she said, given the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic and the economy.
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MORE APPLICATIONS, FEWER OPENINGS
The number of job seekers hard hit by the battered labour market amid COVID-19 is growing, and more are vying for a smaller pool of positions, according to recruitment agencies.
Michael Page’s Singapore managing director Nilay Khandelwal said his office saw a 30 per cent drop in vacancies between the first and second quarter of this year among companies they work with.
It has also taken about 20 to 25 per cent more time for a candidate to secure a job, he said, as employers have become more cautious about hiring.
“One of the reasons is the appetite has gone down, so you need more rounds to vet through a hire. The cost of mis-hiring can be quite costly,” Mr Khandelwal said, adding that the work-from-home situation also increases the time it takes for firms to go through the hiring process.
Robert Walters Singapore associate director of sales and marketing, healthcare and supply chain Wendy Heng said that she has received 15 to 20 per cent more applications per job compared to the beginning of the year.
This does not include resumes sent in through referrals or sent to their general email inbox.
Within her portfolio, she has seen more CVs from marketers compared to sales executives, which she thinks is because companies tend to cut marketing roles first rather than frontline positions such as sales.
Data from job portals paint a further picture of how tough the employment market is currently.
According to a report by LinkedIn, the average number of applications per job posted on its site in July was nearly twice what it was at the start of this year, from around 40 to almost 80. Numbers began to rise in April.
And compared to pre-COVID-19 levels, the report said job seekers were more likely to apply for positions in a different industry, particularly those in the worst-hit sectors like construction and tourism.
Employment has slowed as well, noted the report, which was published on Aug 14. The hiring rate in Singapore shrunk by 5 per cent by end-July.
Job postings in consumer goods, media and communications, as well as corporate services saw the largest declines of -45 per cent, -31 per cent and -22 per cent respectively.
Online jobs site Indeed has seen a 35 per cent decline in job postings than what it normally expects at this time of the year, said its Asia-Pacific economist Callam Pickering.
Highly skilled sectors like therapy, mathematics, marketing and media and communications have experienced a large fall in hiring activity as well, he noted.
“Labour market conditions in Singapore right now are the weakest we have seen since 2009,” Mr Pickering said.
“Job seekers are currently faced with the devastating combination of fewer job opportunities and greater competition for those available jobs.”
One company that has put hiring on hold is construction firm One Smart Engineering.
Its co-founder David Ng said the company has not opened up any new positions since April, given the construction work delays and bleak industry sentiment.
But that has not stopped people from sending their resumes in. Mr Ng said the company has received applications from some engineers, including those who have lost their jobs. They have also seen more local engineers writing in compared to January.
While his team has gone on a hiring freeze, Mr Ng said there are other contractors still looking for people and taking the opportunity to hire Singaporeans and permanent residents as more of them have entered the job market.
“Some players in the construction industry may be hiring not because business is good but more to rush to complete projects delayed by the circuit breaker and some new projects,” said Mr Ng, who is also a council member of The Institution of Engineers, Singapore.
Amid the soft labour market, some job seekers are turning to temporary positions.
Peter (not his real name) took on a six-month contract role at the end of July in a small architectural studio after a futile hunt for a permanent position.
Unhappy with the culture at his previous company, the architect left his job in February, certain that he would find another firm.
“I wasn’t very confident I would find something immediately, but I knew I wouldn’t be unemployed. I just never thought it would take such a long time,” the 38-year-old said.
He sent out between 40 and 50 applications - each tailored to the company’s job description - and went for about 20 interviews, never getting any offers except for the role he is currently in.
Peter, who has been in the field for about a decade, is still looking. He has found himself lowering his expectations as the months drag on, applying for positions that require half the numbers of years of experience he has and of a lower pay grade.
Sometimes, he puts down a lower salary figure than what he used to get, for fear that he comes across as being over-qualified and “too expensive” for the position.
“You definitely find days when you question your self-worth … it can be overwhelming,” he said.
A former Resorts World Sentosa employee, who wanted to be known only as JC, is working as a Lalamove delivery driver after being laid off in July from his support services role of nine years.
Apart from deliveries, the 39-year-old has been helping his parents with their preserved flowers business JC Everlasting Flora, which has also been doing poorly during this period, he said.
His income is one-quarter of what he used to earn, JC added.
As a father of two children, aged two months and one-and-a-half years, and a car loan to pay off, JC said he is worried about his family’s future finances.
Peter and JC asked that their names be withheld as they are afraid their former employers would take action against them for divulging information.
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Singapore’s jobless rate, which surged to 2.9 per cent in the second quarter of this year, is set to rise further as economists and the Government warn that conditions for workers will get worse.
Retrenchments more than doubled in the second quarter, while employment saw its sharpest quarterly contraction on record.
While general employment prospects are in the doldrums, there are a few sectors still hungry for manpower.
Both Mr Khandelwal and Ms Heng noted that technology specialists - the likes of software developers, data analysts and user experience designers - are still very much in demand, perhaps even more so as digital functions become more important during COVID-19.
Family offices, chipmakers and Chinese companies - as China is the first country to have stabilised the coronavirus outbreak - are other places that are more likely to hire right now, Mr Khandelwal said.
Openings can also be found in e-commerce and logistics, Ms Heng said, although most of them are looking for temporary couriers and packers rather than executives.
Similarly, LinkedIn found that job postings in healthcare and software as well as IT services have gone up - 32 per cent and 21 per cent respectively - year-on-year between May and July. This is likely driven by the need for additional medical staff due to the pandemic, and the faster pace of digital transformation among businesses, said LinkedIn.
Robotics start-up Solustar is one employer still on the lookout for engineers to help develop one of its virus-related products.
“We are hiring because we have created a self-cleansing disinfectant robot called the Solubots Disinfectant Robot to support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” founder and chief executive Louis Loo said, adding that he is seeing higher demand for disinfectant robots during this period.
The company currently has four engineering and one administrative position to fill.
Fortunately, it has become easier for Solustar to hire since February, Mr Loo said, adding that more applicants and candidates are now open to salary negotiations.
He has also seen applications increase tenfold. During this time last year, he used to receive only two to three applications from university graduates. Now there are 30 applications from those fresh out of school.
100,000 JOB OPPORTUNITIES
With business sentiment expected to remain dim for the rest of the year, the Government decided to step in with a job and career development strategy.
Announced in May during the fourth Budget, the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package is a S$2 billion programme aimed at creating 100,000 job, attachment and training openings.
Under the initiative, job seekers are encouraged to go for six- to 12-month courses to boost their employability, with a S$1,200 allowance to cover their expenses.
Mid-career individuals get even more money - S$1,500 - if they take courses in sectors that will probably have job opportunities as the economy recovers, such as technology and manufacturing.
Companies are offered a hiring incentive if they hire a person who underwent a re-training programme.
But Ms Heng said that a mid-career switch “is not so straightforward” for roles that require technical know-how.
“I think the government grants obviously help because if not companies would definitely not be open in the first place," she said.
“But there’s only so much transferable skills set in my view, (and) I don’t necessarily think that you can look into switching in like a six-month time frame. You’re just not going to have the skill set nor the experience to do it.”
Some, like Zach (not his real name), would also not be keen to take up such jobs despite being unable to find a full-time position.
The 32-year-old returned to Singapore from Australia last December after graduating from university as a mature student.
He has been getting by on temporary jobs and freelance photography gigs since February, after he was laid off a month into an architecture job when COVID-19 forced his bosses to prematurely end a project he was on.
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But Zach is not about to give up his goal of becoming an architect.
“I won’t change careers right now because I know what I want,” he said.
Whether one needs help getting work, manpower industry players said that aside from being digitally savvy, soft skills like creativity and high emotional intelligence are all the more vital right now.
“When working in the digital space, soft skills are now even more important, as we need to work, collaborate and manage teams remotely,” said LinkedIn Asia-Pacific vice-president of talent and learning solutions Feon Ang.
“Being open to re-skilling and up-skilling in these areas will help professionals gain transferable skills that might be useful for the future, whether they are looking for a job, or adapting to working in their current one.”