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Workers returning to aviation sector but some roles hard to fill, say firms and experts

Workers returning to aviation sector but some roles hard to fill, say firms and experts

Travellers walk through a transit hall of Changi Airport in Singapore on May 13, 2022. (File photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

SINGAPORE: The aviation industry in Singapore may not face as much of a struggle to rehire workers as cities in Europe and US, but experts say there are still potential bottlenecks in a sector that is just recovering from the pandemic.

As border restrictions eased and travel rebounded in recent months, Singapore aviation firms have been on a hiring spree for positions ranging from cargo handlers to cabin crew, engineers and roles in marketing and administration.

Airlines and airports in Europe and the United States in territories that opened up earlier had faced chaos and cut flights due to the sudden spike in demand, partly because of a lack of manpower.

British media reported that London’s Heathrow Airport asked airlines to cancel flight schedules as baggage piled up, and passengers at airports in Europe and Australia have faced long queues and delays.  

In Singapore, thousands of jobs are on offer across the sector. In May, the Changi Airport Group said that it had more than 6,600 available jobs. Senior Minister of State for Transport Chee Hong Tat said last month at the OneAviation Careers job fair that close to 2,000 vacancies needed filling immediately.

The two-day career and recruitment event attracted more than 11,000 job seekers and aviation enthusiasts, said the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS).

It will launch a OneAviation Careers Hub web portal in the third quarter of 2022 for people interested in aviation jobs, training opportunities and career conversion programmes.

Mr Subhas Menon, director-general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA), said the manpower crunch faced by the aviation industry is a worldwide phenomenon.

The hiatus in aviation over two years of the pandemic meant that many workers left the sector and migrant workers returned home.

“It is not just getting workers but getting qualified workers as air transport is largely a specialised industry. Those rehired need to be trained or retrained,” he said.

But he added that things in Asia may not be as bad as in other parts of the world. 

“My sense is that in Asia, redundancies were relatively lower so it should not be too difficult to ramp up though it takes time to employ and get people up to speed. It’s not like turning off and on a tap as safety is of utmost priority,” said Mr Menon.

“We need to bring the sexy back to the industry as the past two years unfortunately will be remembered for how badly aviation and its workers were battered by the pandemic response.”

Companies here said they have accelerated hiring and that they are not lacking in applicants, but some specialised roles can be hard to fill. Some firms have also had problems hiring for rank-and-file positions.

National carrier Singapore Airlines (SIA) said that after resuming its cabin crew recruitment drive in March this year, it has selected more than 800 applicants to date. Of these, around 60 per cent are returning crew members, said the airline.

A spokesperson said the airline received "several thousand" applications, without specifying the number, and this is “three to four times more than pre-COVID days”.

Ground-handler and in-flight catering service provider SATS, which had advertised about 600 positions, said that most of them have been filled. The company offered applicants a joining bonus of S$5,000.

“We are excited that travel of all sorts is growing. Anticipating recovery, we have been ramping up operations across the company to meet our customers’ needs,” said Ms Lilian Tan, chief human capital officer at SATS.
 
Mr Musdalifa Abdullah, dnata Singapore’s managing director, said the company plans to recruit and train about 200 new employees. The company saw an “overwhelmingly positive response” at the OneAviation career fair with more than 300 applicants, he said.

“We are currently busy reviewing applications and interviewing candidates. Some candidates have already been offered employment,” said Mr Musdalifa. 
 
There are still challenges in hiring for specialised roles that require industry experience, he added. The company is actively recruiting through its partners in the education sector, job portals and career fairs, while also reaching out to people in COVID-related job roles that are being stood down, he said.

Some companies have found it hard to fill rank-and-file positions, such as those in the air cargo industry, according to SAAA@Singapore, a trade association for the sector. SAAA estimated that the percentage of unfilled vacancies is about 5 per cent among their member companies.

Executive director Pauline Tok said it has been particularly hard to recruit, especially for rank-and-file jobs and those at the Changi Airfreight Centre and ALPS as the locations are not as accessible.

Candidates are job-hopping and some went “missing in action” and did not report for work, she said.
 
“The job market is highly at the mercy of candidates, with them spoilt for choices and wider job selection options,” said Ms Tok, adding that the sector has increased wages and is offering flexible work arrangements to attract talent.

For airport security, Certis said it shortlisted about 100 candidates for different positions from the OneAviation Career Fair last month. It had more than 500 vacancies for various roles, including command centre support officers, auxiliary police officers and aviation security officers. 

Mr Andy Tan, vice president and head of Certis Aviation Security, said the firm is also deploying former aviation security officers – who were deployed to other roles during the pandemic – back to the aviation security unit.

Mr Sia Kheng Yok, chief executive of the Association of Aerospace Industries (Singapore) said the association has been preparing for this recovery since almost a year ago.

AAIS formed a manpower committee last August to look into talent-related issues that could affect the repositioning and recovery of the aerospace industry. Among other proposals, this led to the formation of an education advisory panel to provide insights on the future of aviation and inform tertiary institutions on their curriculum. 

“We are also working with agencies to refresh the branding of the industry, and drive policies and initiatives that can make the industry more attractive for talent. While these efforts may not completely or instantly address the complex and evolving issue of talent, jobs and careers, we hope that we can move the needle during a critical period of recovery for the industry,” said Mr Sia.

He estimates there are perhaps 3,000 vacant positions available for people with the right skills. Job roles being offered include aircraft cabin interior design, aeronautical engineering technicians to managerial and administrative roles. He too said that it can be difficult to find people with the right qualifications.

“There is a strong demand for aircraft and engineering technicians and other industries are also vying for them. Digital transformation and adoption of new technologies are accelerating in aerospace, but those with such expertise are also in demand by the tech sector,” said Mr Sia.

When asked how Singapore compares with other countries, he said Singapore has the “clear advantage” of an established industry cluster, and a good supportive education and training system. 

“The education institutions do produce a steady flow of talent for the industry. We are also attractive to global skills and talent, where this is needed to augment our strong local talent base,” said Mr Sia.

While that may be the case, experts warned that there can be bottlenecks which firms in the industry need to look out for.

Dr Jochen Wirtz, professor of marketing at the National University of Singapore, said he does not expect Singapore Airlines to face a labour crunch as it is a “preferred employer”, and he also thinks that Changi Airport would face fewer issues than other airports.

But there is always the potential for bottlenecks, he added, and this could include labour shortages and higher fuel prices. He sees the lack of foreign manpower as a possible snag as the industry ramps up.

Mr Gary Ho, senior lecturer for aviation management at the School of Engineering in Temasek Polytechnic, said some workers may be hesitant to join the industry due to worries over another wave of COVID-19 and the industry being shut down again.

He noted that the industry faces fierce competition for talent from other sectors. For example, the hospitality industry is hiring from the same pool of frontline workers, while the IT and banking sectors are paying more than the aviation industry for executives. 

“The aviation sector seriously needs to look into attracting and retaining workers by reviewing their pay scale,” he said.

He added that the aviation industry in Singapore is “especially dependant” on foreign workers as the salaries paid to frontliners are not attractive to locals. 

“Aviation companies need to start looking at effective manpower strategies. One example would be to carve and design jobs for the large number of seniors we have in Singapore,” he said. 

“We could also start to work on flexible working hours and flexible part-time schemes to attract different types of workers such as students, mothers and those who may have opted for early retirement in their previous companies.”

He also proposed greater use of technology and automation to “take care of the mundane day-to-day activities while letting our precious human talent take care of the people who need help”.

Source: CNA/hm(cy)

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