The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed the business landscape in Singapore. Caught off guard, many businesses were forced into a sink-or-swim situation, and with revenues drying up, many had to resort to cost-saving measures to ensure their survival.
One of these measures, as expected, was to impose hiring freezes and retrench workers. Several months ago, the crypto space saw a number of companies lay off workers. The tech sector was also rocked by layoffs with 17,000 tech workers laid off in May alone.
According to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the total number of retrenchments in Singapore rose to 1,600 in the third quarter, from a previous all-time low of 830 during the previous quarter. Of these, the majority were in the services sector. This rise, according to MOM, was a result of companies’ reorganisation or restructuring.
While retrenchment may be a risk for many, the consequences are not always equal. Being retrenched in your 40s or 50s, with children to support and elderly parents to take care of, means that retrenchment can be far more devastating for mature PMEs than for those without dependents. Yet, these PMEs also report that they are far less optimistic about their prospects for the future.
So why are they — with their wealth of experience — not confident about getting a job, and what is being done to help them?
Understanding the struggle
According to a survey by NTUC and the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), PMEs felt that their age was a significant disadvantage. While they were confident in their skills, they were less confident about getting hired.
While 58 per cent of mature PMEs surveyed were confident in getting a job with their skills and capabilities, a significant portion of PMEs also cited age-related concerns as to the reason why they were not getting hired.
63 per cent of these PMEs felt that employers perceived them as easily replaceable due to their age, and 71 per cent of mature PMEs felt that companies were not open to older workers.
As such, some PMEs even accept significant pay cuts to remain employed. Others also report that they face age discrimination in the workplace, and feel worried about competition from foreign PMEs.
On top of this, we should also understand that as Singapore develops, the skill sets that were once uncommon and in demand may no longer be so, and since mature PMEs may have gained their skills before such shifts, time itself could be making their skills irrelevant and hurt their employment prospects.
Younger PMEs, on the other hand, are less concerned about their future. According to the survey, younger PMEs were more confident about career opportunities, more confident about their current skills, and significantly less worried about age being an impediment to their employment.
In fact, only 27 per cent of respondents aged between 20 and 40 years old felt that they were easily replaceable due to their age.
This is somewhat expected – younger PMEs with newly-learned skills have less to fear about their skills becoming diffused, and their age is less of a factor because there are less likely to be concerns about them having to juggle work commitments with family time.
What help can PMEs expect?
The NTUC-SNEF PME Taskforce (PME TF) was set up to better understand the concerns and needs of PMEs in the workplace.
Since the PME TF was set up in 2020, it has been actively engaging PMEs and business leaders in order to better understand the challenges that PMEs face. In 2021, it released its report along with nine recommendations to help PMEs compete fairly and more effectively in the labour market.
One of the courses of action that the taskforce recommended was to improve Human Resources standards and enforcing these standards in companies where discrimination takes place.
To that end, the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness is expected to release its report by the end of the year, and work with the Institute of Human Resource Professionals to certify HR professionals and improve HR standards and practices in companies.
However, NTUC assistant Secretary-General Patrick Tay, who co-chairs the PME TF, has noted that such employers are in the minority.
Fortunately, the general sense (is) that there are only small numbers of errant employers. So I think one of the key things we hope to see is to address some of these more egregious cases specifically.– NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Patrick Tay
Singaporeans, including mature PMEs, are also encouraged to attend courses for upskilling and certification to increase their employability. SkillsFuture credits are made available to Singaporeans to attend these courses, and MOM has been working to promote employer recognition for these skills.
That said, the implementation of these measures do not simply mean that the courses will be taken up. There is a concept of opportunity cost, where taking a certain action would mean giving up the chance to take a different option.
For PMEs who are actively working, this could mean having to resign from their current job before they can enrol in such upskilling courses, and having to find a new job once they complete their upskilling courses.
Certainly, this is not an ideal situation. Mature PMEs, as we have seen, face difficulties in securing a job because of their age, and since they may also have children to support and parents to take care of, the lost income may pose a financial problem.
As part of the nine recommendations by the taskforce, NTUC has recommended that stronger unemployment support be provided for PMEs who are moving into new jobs, with additional support for union members and mature PMEs.
At an engagement session on 2 November 2022 at the Star Vista, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng affirmed that the government has heard NTUC’s calls for unemployment support for workers and is currently looking at how it can better support displaced workers.
The event saw over 60 PMEs engaging in focus group discussions and a dialogue session with Dr Tan and NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng.
Tay previously pointed out that 80 per cent of unemployed workers take six months to find a new job, and has consequently recommended that the government provide short-term salary support of up to 50 per cent – capped at S$3,800 a month for six months – for firms that hire mature PMEs.
Additionally, NTUC has also supported PMEs via Company Training Committees, to help them with their career progression and career planning.
Evidently, Singapore’s PMEs can count on NTUC and the government for some support. As Tay joked during an NTUC’s #EveryWorkerMatters Conversations event at LinkedIn, “I’m not a Liverpool fan, but you’ll never walk alone.”
What can PMEs do in the meantime?
Currently, MOM is still reviewing the recommendations that NTUC has provided through the PME TF, including its proposals to provide unemployment support for retrenched PMEs.
Since PMEs have shared that they would very much appreciate interim assistance in the event of retrenchment, Ng has also expressed that he hopes MOM would strongly support the proposals.
NTUC Singapore is still lobbying for unemployment support for our PMEs, which will provide interim aid and much-needed assistance to vulnerable PMEs. I know that MOM is reviewing this recommendation and I’m keeping my fingers crossed because this move will go a long way to support our PMEs’ welfare.– NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng
While both Ng and Tay have promised to continue championing the interests of local PMEs and pushing for more support for mature PMEs, they also stressed that NTUC also understands that there is always room for improvement.
As such, Ng encourages workers to speak up about their needs, as well as their aspirations for the future.
Through #EveryWorkerMatters conversations, we will engage you to better understand your work-life needs. NTUC wants to champion your interests.How can we enable you to upgrade skills and compete in this new environment? How can we protect the vulnerable workers amongst us? How can NTUC give you greater assurance as your needs in life evolve?– NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng
No organisation can fulfil its purpose without information. Although NTUC has been actively engaging many PMEs to understand their needs, it is asking for even more PMEs to voice any concerns that they might have, so that it can better fill any gaps that have thus far been left unaddressed.
With the recommendations that NTUC has put forth so far, it seems clear that NTUC believes strongly in its cause for championing the interests of the local workforce, and it wants you to help them help you.
If you have any issues or concerns regarding retrenchment or employment, NTUC is willing to listen and help. You can kick start a conversation that will help to shape a better future for you here.
This article was written in collaboration with the National Trade Union Congress.
Featured Image Credit: Piloto Asia