The Big Read: Saved by COVID-19 jobs, thousands now have to mull their future as Singapore looks to exit crisis
As the pandemic eases, there could be a significant cut in the headcount for short-term COVID-19-related jobs, several economists and Members of Parliament (MPs) said.
SINGAPORE: When 30-year-old Muhammad Taufiq Essa left his job at the end of 2019 as a development engineer at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), he looked forward to “taking a break” as he did not fancy the rigidity of a nine-to-five office job.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic struck early last year, hammering the economy, throwing thousands out of work, and forcing a partial lockdown for two months that brought Singapore to a standstill. While all this spelt doom and gloom for many, Mr Taufiq saw an opportunity instead.
In July last year, Mr Taufiq found himself a temporary job as a swabber, employed by the Health Promotion Board (HPB). He was part of a roving team that went to various sites such as foreign worker dormitories and Changi Airport to conduct COVID-19 testing operations.
Fast forward one year, Mr Taufiq said he not only relishes his swabber role, he also finds meaning in what he does.
“I get to meet up with new people and experience new settings,” he said. “The flexible working hours are also a plus point.”
Such perks were absent in an office setting during his three-year stint at A*Star, he added.
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Mr Taufiq hopes that he can retain his role as a swabber, in the belief that the job will still exist even if COVID-19 becomes endemic and a larger proportion of the population is vaccinated.
“You have to be prepared when there’s a new wave or new variant,” he said.
While he does have a back-up plan of becoming a freelance photographer, he is not looking for a new permanent job at the moment.
“The end game is to get promoted to a permanent role, but if it doesn’t come to that, then I will just go with the flow,” said Mr Taufiq, who earns about S$3,800 a month as a swabber, about the same as his previous job at A*Star.
Mr Taufiq is among the thousands of workers who have been placed in short-term COVID-19-related jobs - offered by both the Government and the private sector - to deal with the new challenges brought about by the pandemic, such as getting people to maintain a safe distance when in a crowded place. The roles have also provided a lifeline to those who suddenly found themselves unemployed.
However, as the pandemic eases and more people are inoculated under Singapore’s national vaccination programme, the safe management measures are set to be relaxed. This would, in all likelihood, lead to a significant cut in the headcount for short-term COVID-19-related jobs, several economists and Members of Parliament (MPs) said.
The authorities expect at least two-thirds of the population to be vaccinated by National Day on Aug 9. By the end of July, when the vaccination rate is set to reach at least 50 per cent, those who are fully vaccinated may be allowed to gather in groups of eight and attend events of up to 500 people, among other things.
Mr Desmond Choo, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Manpower, said that the creation of temporary COVID-19 roles was a “win-win” situation, as it addressed a surge in demand to maintain safe management measures and also provided workers in distressed sectors with an alternative livelihood.
Still, these roles may not last in the long run, said Mr Choo, who is also an MP for Tampines Group Representation Constituency. “As we wind down our safe management measures, naturally demand for such workers will drop,” he added.
Even the remaining roles could be eventually replaced by technology, economists and human resource (HR) experts pointed out.
For instance, automated gantries are being set up at some mall entrances, possibly negating the need for workers to be stationed there to ensure shoppers check in properly and take their temperature. In time to come, swabbing may also be automated as cross-border travel resumes, the experts predicted.
DBS Bank senior economist Irvin Seah expects the COVID-19 job roles to be cut from the end of the year. But he does not expect this to be done drastically - at least until ailing industries, such as aviation and tourism, start to recover.
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“The data will tell you when you should start to wind down (these temporary roles),” said Mr Seah. “The employment numbers and the job growth numbers will be a very clear indicator of the ability of the economy to create new, permanent jobs.”
In response to queries, a spokesman from the Public Service Division (PSD) said that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 15,000 workers have been placed in temporary COVID-19 roles. These include those in swabbing or quarantine operations, safe distancing ambassadors and enforcement officers, and those providing patient services. No figures are available on those hired by the private sector.
PSD coordinates and manages these short-term positions.
“Although temporary in nature, these roles provide workers with an opportunity to remain productive in the workforce, gain new work experience and transferrable skills to increase their employability and career prospects, as well as gain access to useful networks which can open doors to potential new careers,” the spokesman said.
Agencies hiring swabbers include HPB and other private health providers.
While the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment oversees safe distancing enforcement, safe distancing ambassadors are hired by 65 public agencies. These include Enterprise Singapore, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the National Parks Board.
Temperature screeners, who are stationed at entrances of private and public buildings, are hired by healthcare providers, as well as the respective private and public organisations.
WORKING ON PLAN B
While Mr Taufiq sees the pandemic as an opportunity to forge a new career as a swabber, there are others who see no future in these jobs - even though they enjoy what they have been doing in the past year.
Mr Mirosh Singh had worked as a full-time freelance fitness instructor before the pandemic, making ends meet by juggling the role alongside his part-time studies.
But with COVID-19 came periods where gyms and fitness studios had to shutter, and the 26-year-old found himself unable to sustain his income. So he applied for a job as a swabber with HPB, and started working in June last year on a six-month contract.
While he was earning about S$800 to S$2,000 a month as a freelance fitness instructor, his monthly income as a swabber went up to S$3,800. Apart from a bigger paycheck, Mr Mirosh also found the job - which included conducting various swabbing operations in foreign worker dormitories - to be meaningful.
“It was a very natural calling, I had served as a medic in National Service and it had instilled in me the values of being a medic and saving lives,” he said. “So I was like, ok, this is where I could be useful.”
Although he enjoyed the work, Mr Mirosh started looking for a new job in September as his contract was coming to an end.
“There’s no guarantee our contracts would extend ... I don’t think it was a risk I was willing to take,” he said.
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He applied for about 15 jobs in the sports and fitness, private education and healthcare industries, but did not get any replies initially.
It was only in November that the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) got back to him, and it eventually offered him a contract role as an executive focusing on non-academic student programmes such as physical education.
Around the same time, HPB offered Mr Mirosh a three-month extension as a swabber, which he accepted for a short while before resigning from the role about a month after, in late December.
He accepted the one-year contract at SUSS instead, which started in January.
Even though the SUSS job pays about S$3,000 a month - lower than his swabber’s role - he does not mind it in the least.
“I always wanted to be in the education industry, so to put it bluntly, it was a no-brainer. The opportunity was there and I had to take it, despite the pay cut,” said Mr Mirosh.
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A former safe distancing ambassador, who wanted to be known only as Kelvin, also decided to seek a more permanent job after his contract ended.
The 42-year-old had tried, for a few months, to hold on to his job as the creative head of an events firm, even as the live events industry was being battered by COVID-19. But by October last year, it became apparent that live shows would not be returning in full-force.
He left his job and managed to secure a six-month contract as a safe distancing ambassador in January. His role involved patrolling malls and ensuring that customers and businesses abide by prevailing safe management measures.
At first, he was content with sticking to the ambassador job until the live events industry was back on its feet. It gave him a steady income to support his family, which includes a three-year-old daughter and another child on the way.
However, in April it dawned on him that the pandemic would be dragging on longer than he had anticipated. So he began looking for permanent jobs, making about 80 applications in events-related industries.
Sure enough, in early May, community cases in Singapore rose and the ensuing tighter restrictions under Phase Two (Heightened Alert), which again affected live performances and events, confirmed his worst fears about the industry’s future.
“With the new government measures, there was no end of the pandemic in sight anytime soon,” said Kelvin. “I think it was more practical for me to get something that is a bit more sustainable for the family.”
Thankfully, towards the end of his stint as a safe distancing ambassador, he managed to secure a position at a firm that organises Mice (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) events. He started his new job this month.
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“ALWAYS KNEW ROLES WOULD CEASE”
Even those who have had their contracts just renewed or are working on a freelance basis know that they have to start looking beyond these “COVID-19 jobs”.
For 29-year-old Chia De Zhong, his career as a freelance actor, emcee and stage performer came to a standstill with the pandemic. He began work as a swabber with HPB from July last year until his contract ended in April.
He then continued as a freelance swabber with various private healthcare providers, and is still doing so now at one of Singapore’s border checkpoints. He is not on a contract and his stints can end any time, depending on the demand for his service.
Given the uncertainty, Mr Chia has been doing freelance gigs as an actor and performer alongside his current job, though these are limited.
“Of course I hope that this (swabber) job remains, (but) we always know that it is going to end someday,” said Mr Chia, adding that he has other options.
“Thankfully, I have a business degree, so if the worst comes to worst, I will find a corporate job,” he said. He will also consider roles in marketing and public relations, and is also open to furthering his studies.
“I haven’t actively searched yet, because I still want to pursue my dreams, which is to act and sing and emcee,” he said.
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One safe distancing ambassador, who declined to be named, said he has started looking for other jobs although his contract with a government agency has been extended.
The 30-year-old, who patrols malls in the central region, was initially a manager at a food and beverage (F&B) outlet, but had left his job at the end of 2019, before COVID-19 hit.
Unable to find a job in the battered industry last year, he became a temperature screener at various malls from March to July, before starting his current safe distancing ambassador role in August.
Despite accepting a three-month contract extension that will last until October, he has started looking for new jobs.
“You cannot wait until you are jobless and then find a job, you have to quickly move on because we know this job will not be here forever,” he said.
He has applied for various jobs within the F&B sector, as well as the security sector. He believes that his experience in the past year will come in handy in the security industry.
“As a safe distancing ambassador, you learn how a mall functions, and you also work together with the mall management and security,” he said.
In April, then Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said in a written parliamentary reply that among the 12,000 people placed in short-term COVID-19 related roles at the time, more than one in four were persons temporarily redeployed as part of the National Jobs Council’s effort to support workers in hard-hit sectors.
“These workers remain employees of their parent companies, in sectors such as aviation and hospitality where demand remains low,” said Mrs Teo then. “We expect that they will return to their parent companies subsequently when demand recovers, and their skills and experience are again needed.”
She added that for the other three in four workers, the authorities are “committed to helping them find permanent jobs after they complete their stints”.
The Jobs Growth Incentive - where the Government pays part of a worker’s salary - has helped to increase local hiring demand, while the career conversion programmes have helped jobseekers reskill to join new industries, said Mrs Teo, who is currently the Minister for Communications and Information.
Those who require assistance with their job search can approach Workforce Singapore and the National Trades Union Congress’ (NTUC’s) Employment and Employability Institute (e2i). They can also approach the 24 SGUnited Jobs and Skills Centres islandwide.
Mr Gilbert Tan, chief executive officer of NTUC’s e2i, said that a range of resources, such as the SGUnited Skills programme, SkillsFuture Credit and the NTUC Union Training Assistance Programme, are available to workers in temporary COVID-19 roles.
“Some of these trainings are part-time or conducted online, so individuals have greater flexibility to attend them anytime, anywhere,” said Mr Tan.
“It all boils down to having an individual take charge of his or her own career as there are resources and help available.”
He added that NTUC’s Job Security Council has also been helping to match workers in temporary roles to new jobs. It has been reaching out to safe distancing ambassadors to help them switch careers, by providing hands-on “industry previews” for jobs as bakers and baristas, for example.
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LET MARKET FORCES DRIVE JOB CREATION: ECONOMISTS
While COVID-19-related jobs may dwindle in the coming months, Singapore’s economic recovery, which is underway following last year’s recession, may help workers in these temporary roles to find new, and perhaps permanent jobs.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the country’s gross domestic product growth is expected to be at least 4 per cent to 6 per cent this year, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong earlier this week.
Mr Seah from DBS Bank said the focus now should be on reopening the economy, instead of coming up with new support measures for those in temporary COVID-19 roles.
“The Government has talked so much about moving into an endemic situation, but what’s really underscoring all this is that economic activity will be normalised, then naturally there will be more job creation,” he said.
“It’s more important to let market forces drive job creation, than to support employment via government policy… Employment-related policies will roll out only in times of crisis, but it should never be a long-term solution.”
Agreeing, Ms Selena Ling, head of treasury research and strategy at OCBC Bank, said that the Government need not intentionally cut these COVID-19 related jobs and leave it to demand and supply.
As the economy recovers, the demand for such temporary roles will decrease as more people return to their previously battered industries, or find new employment elsewhere.
“As the economy recovers and you see the job vacancies now basically picking up again, I think they would much prefer to go for a permanent role rather than what's considered temporary and ad hoc employment,” said Ms Ling.
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Due to the unpredictability of the pandemic, where new strains can emerge, CIMB Private Banking economist Song Seng Wun believes that the Government will not immediately cut the temporary COVID-19 roles the moment a certain economic indicator, such as employment numbers, is met.
While opening up the economy is important, health and safety will still come first, he said.
For instance, even when the economy was opening up slowly, the COVID-19 Delta variant still managed to enter Singapore through its airport, and more resources - such as swabbers - had to be deployed to contain the virulent strain.
Mr Song noted that the temporary roles will still have to be in place for “a few months” after the economy stabilises, in case of any residual health threats. In turn, this will give the temporary workers more time to look for jobs.
“When we are too fast in opening up, you can be affected by viral waves,” said Mr Song. “The lesson we have learned over the past 14 months (is that) health and safety must come first, and then the economy can follow.”
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BEST TIME TO LOOK FOR NEW JOBS: HR EXPERT
Still, for those in temporary roles, they should not get too comfortable and should start looking for permanent jobs, said Mr Adrian Choo, founder of career consulting company Career Agility International.
Adding that the roles were known to be temporary from the start, he said: “A lot of the people took the job up because it wasn’t a career, but was the only job available in the market that pays decently well.
“If you want to make a career out of being a temperature taker, what’s the longevity and progression in that, especially if you’re a fresh graduate?”
Even if COVID-19 becomes endemic, where people learn to live with the virus despite the occasional spike in infection rates, this does not mean that the temporary jobs will stay either, since technology may take over some of these roles.
Mr Choo gave the example of automated gantries set up at mall entrances, which allow customers through after they present their TraceTogether app or token. Such technology may also be developed for other COVID-19 related roles to replace manpower.
Now will be the best time to look for a new permanent job, he added.
“As much as COVID-19 has taken away jobs, it has also created new (permanent) jobs.”
For instance, the tech industry has been boosted tremendously by COVID-19 and there is a shortage of talent in this field.
“If you're looking at going into the job market, now is the time to start scaling up these skills which the market needs,” he said.
Mr Choo also likened these temporary roles to those in the gig economy.
While it is possible to earn some income as a food delivery rider or a private hire driver, he questioned if it is “something you want to do for the rest of your life”.
“I know fresh graduates who drive (private hire cars) for three years, and at the end of three years, they find it even harder to land a (permanent) job,” said Mr Choo.
HOPING FOR BRIGHTER DAYS TO RETURN
While the economists interviewed are not expecting a spike in unemployment even as COVID-19 temporary jobs lose their raison d’etre, many workers in these roles remain worried that the economic recovery may not come quickly enough for them to find new jobs.
After all, the job market traditionally lags behind economic growth.
Mr Liang Eng Hwa, also a member of the GPC for Manpower, shared the workers’ anxieties.
“I am concerned about how those working on short-term jobs related to COVID-19 can transition to longer-term jobs when these positions are no longer needed,” said Mr Liang, who is also MP for Bukit Panjang.
He noted that MOM is committed to help these workers find permanent jobs after they complete their stints with programmes such as the Jobs Growth Incentive.
“I would also urge employers to give these workers a chance; try them out, help train and develop them and take them as long-term employees,” he said.
Kelvin, the former safe distancing ambassador, recalled the difficulties which he faced in trying to upgrade himself. There was little time in between gruelling shift hours as a safe distancing ambassador to pursue further skills and knowledge, he said.
With his monthly income as a safe distancing ambassador pegged to the number of shifts he did, he would also rather do more shifts to put food on the table, than spend time on training.
“I was looking at taking up some courses to reskill (during my time as a safe distancing ambassador) but then the thing is because I have a family, I couldn’t go without income,” he said. “The schedule didn’t quite allow me to pick up anything.”
Ultimately, some of these temporary workers are keeping their fingers crossed that they will be able to return to their old jobs pre-pandemic, as a recovering economy breathes new life into the ailing sectors.
While Mr Chia, the swabber, is open to furthering his studies or landing a corporate role, he knows this is not his calling.
“I will still want to do acting and singing, as I live for my passion,” he said. “I would be very, very happy when COVID-19 ends and I can get more acting gigs.”