Published on 09 Apr 2022

Will a labour shortage crimp Singapore's post-pandemic recovery?

Assoc Prof Angie Low says the stricter policies would push companies to look for labour domestically, but this would be contingent on the supply of qualified locals willing to take up the jobs

After 18 months under what he felt were stifling restrictions in Singapore, German hospitality professional Andre Alexy decided to leave the Republic in July last year for a plum position in Dubai.

The role, as food and beverage (F&B) operations manager at Atlantis The Royal, and the chance to be part of an opening team, was too good to pass up.

Located at the tip of the tree-shaped island Palm Jumeirah, and set to open this October, the resort is arguably one of the most anticipated hotel openings in the Middle East with a line-up of 17 F&B properties, including eight celebrity chef restaurants.

"After 1½ years under a lockdown state in Singapore and a restricted environment, I didn't feel I had the same opportunities as when I'd moved there in March 2019," said Mr Alexy, 33, who was the former general manager at Japanese restaurant Koma at Marina Bay Sands.

"I didn't want to get stuck in the same position for too long, and lose time on the way of my career path."

He has been in the hospitality industry since he was 16.

"The move was about going to an environment where they are keeping the economy running, with tourists, an international clientele and a lively F&B scene...

"Their pandemic measures were also far more moderate and manageable," he added.

Mr Alexy is part of a sizeable pool of workers who have left Singapore for what they see as greener pastures during the pandemic, citing various reasons from travel restrictions and tighter foreign labour policies to job insecurity and rising living costs.

The total foreign workforce size - excluding domestic workers and those in the construction, marine and process sectors - shrank to 635,700 as at December last year, the smallest in a decade and down from the pre-pandemic high of 795,500 in 2019.

Despite the resulting labour and skills crunch as well as record number of job vacancies in December last year - 114,000, more than double from a year earlier - some form of recovery is expected in the months to come, as Singapore undergoes a significant easing of both domestic and border curbs.

But the relaxation of measures may also strain consumer-facing industries as business picks up and hiring demand follows suit, as Manpower Minister Tan See Leng pointed out earlier this month.

These include the hospitality and F&B sectors, where industry players note that the roles facing the worst manpower crunch are those typically filled by foreigners.

Observers said such workers are now being lured to destinations such as Dubai which have stepped up their tourism recovery efforts and are offering a wide range of industry opportunities.

In addressing these gaps, efforts to reskill and upskill locals have long been on the agenda, but there also remains a need to supplement the workforce with foreign labour.

"The challenge… is not so much the issue of hiring local or relying on foreign talent," said Temasek Polytechnic's senior lecturer in hospitality and tourism management Benjamin Cassim.

"As service industries that basically operate 24 hours a day and seven days a week, the real challenge is convincing people that they can build successful and fulfilling careers there."

Where are the gaps?

Data on falling foreign workforce numbers in Singapore has, of late, been countered with anecdotes of an influx of white-collar finance professionals fleeing Hong Kong's tough zero-Covid-19 restrictions.

On the other end of the spectrum is Dubai, the United Arab Emirates' largest city, which reopened to tourism as early as August 2020 and has embraced expatriate-friendly measures like remote work visas.

"Dubai took the riskier approach, opening up everything after about three months and it paid off very well for them," noted Mr Alexy, who moved there with his girlfriend, who is also in hospitality.

He cited the attractive and tax-free packages - including generous housing allowances, medical insurance and paid flights back home - as a big draw.

"That's why so many people move here, because there are also so many opportunities to grow here," he said.

Singapore, with its more cautious, middle-ground approach to tackling Covid-19, has taken a beating on the tourism front, attracting some 330,000 international visitors last year who spent $1.9 billion - in contrast to 19.1 million visitors spending $28 billion in 2019.

The hotel occupancy rate fell from 87 per cent in 2019 to 56 per cent last year, and the accommodation sector as a whole had a job vacancy rate of 9.2 per cent as at last December, up from 2.6 per cent as at December 2020. In F&B, the corresponding figures were 5.9 per cent, up from 3.6 per cent.

Ministry of Manpower (MOM) data shows that the total number employed across accommodation and food services was 245,800 as at last December, down from 247,100 in December 2020.

A spokesman for the Association of Rooms Division Executives (Arde), a network of hoteliers, noted that many management executives in its industry suffered pay cuts and loss of employment during the pandemic.

"We noticed an increase in hoteliers shifting out of the industry after realising how volatile this industry and their roles are," she said.

But industry players said that for most, the labour crunch has been felt mainly at the operational level - such as room attendants, waiters and chefs - and not so much as at the supervisory level.

Waiters, for example, ranked among the top five non-PMET (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) jobs that went unfilled for at least six months last year, according to the MOM's latest job vacancies report.

"These are the jobs which Singaporeans are not necessarily keen on being involved in on a more permanent basis," said Mr Cassim.

"These roles were filled by a higher proportion of foreign talent - Malaysians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, et cetera - most of whom left Singapore when the pandemic hit, (or when) the establishments either let staff go or ceased operations."

The Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS) has said that some 35 per cent of the total F&B workforce are foreigners, mostly from Malaysia and China.

Industry players pointed to Australia, Canada, Europe and the Middle East as choice destinations for hospitality and F&B staff leaving Singapore.

"After two years of travel restrictions, there is a high demand for tourism talents across all levels," said the Singapore Hotel Association's (SHA) executive director Margaret Heng.

"As more borders reopen, top talents are attracted to countries offering the best career advancement and work experiences."

Mr Cassim said, however, that there were only small differences in remuneration packages and benefits across major tourism hubs.

In the hotel sector, most major international brands operate properties in Singapore and while salaries are generally pegged to local norms, staff here would not lose out to those in other countries in terms of career advancement and recognition of service.

The brands would also adopt a uniform approach globally in talent development and skills upgrading, said Mr Cassim.

"Apart from what the employer offers, there are also other considerations such as the lifestyle offerings of the city, safety and security, ease of access and movement, and the quality of supporting services such as healthcare," he added.

Similar factors relating to Singapore's quality of environment, along with its economic recovery, were cited by observers in espousing its continued edge and attractiveness for foreign workers.

But employers here will soon have to fork out more for them, with the minimum qualifying salaries for both Employment Pass (EP) and S Pass holders due to be raised from September this year.

EP applicants - typically higher-earning professionals - will also be subject to a points-based evaluation system.

Associate Professor Angie Low from Nanyang Technological University's business school said these stricter policies would push companies to try to look for labour domestically, but this would be contingent on the supply of qualified locals willing to take up the jobs.

What needs to be done?

Last month, a letter from a restaurateur to The Straits Times Forum lamented the prospect of rising labour costs from the new measures, writing that "the more I have to pay foreign head chefs to meet the EP criteria, the less I have left to pay those, including Singaporeans, in other roles".

"Making it more expensive to hire foreigners will not solve the upstream problem of Singaporeans shunning this industry. If anything, it will increase costs and lower profitability," he wrote.

According to the RAS, F&B salaries have increased by up to 20 per cent on average over the past two years, but the association has also previously said that merely raising the salary bar might not translate to making service roles more appealing.

In response to the letter, MOM's planning and policy divisional director Kenny Tan said: "To grow sustainably, F&B firms must continue to attract and retain Singaporeans.

"Besides paying competitive salaries, we encourage the F&B industry to continue to redesign jobs, provide better career progression pathways, and uplift the overall image of F&B professions.

"We also encourage workers to embrace upskilling as their jobs transform."

The SHA has responded to this call by working with partners and its training arm Shatec to encourage hotels to upskill and reskill their local workforce.

Noting that there has been an increase in locals occupying middle to senior management positions, the Arde spokesman further suggested providing performance incentives and stay-on bonuses to retain talent, as well as a review of pay scales to benchmark against other industries.

Mr Cassim said that rendering the hospitality and tourism industry more attractive would require a confluence of advocacy, industry action, government legislation and efforts by educational institutions.

"What the industry does need to do is to better manage the narrative on the jobs: the joys of being a part of the service industry; the satisfaction one derives from working in this sector… the skill sets and competencies they will learn and grow into while working on the job, et cetera," he said.

Some associations, however, maintained the workforce must be supplemented with foreign labour, as they pointed to ongoing and anticipated challenges in filling both front-line and supervisory positions with local labour alone.

"There's just not enough of us," said an RAS spokesman, calling on MOM to grant a different quota of foreign workers for F&B businesses than for the overall service sector.

Service sector companies can hire S Pass holders for at most 10 per cent of its total workforce. There is no quota for EP holders.

The recent easing of border restrictions could yet attract labour back to Singapore, and the accompanying relaxation of domestic measures - such as allowing larger dining group sizes and alcohol sales after 10.30pm - would provide an economic shot in the arm for employers.

But these moves also threaten to pile more pressure on hotel and F&B sectors already hamstrung by staff shortages, potentially resulting in limited capacity and shorter operating hours, said observers.

In response to queries on what plans are in the works to draw workers back, the Singapore Tourism Board said it has worked with the National Trades Union Congress, Employment and Employability Institute, Workforce Singapore, and SkillsFuture Singapore to launch the Tourism Careers Hub (TCH) to support tourism businesses in their manpower and training needs.

Launched earlier this year, the pilot programme provides training and skills upgrading for workers and firms in the tourism sector.

TCH will also be launching job fairs to match local job seekers with tourism businesses.

Mr Cassim said his polytechnic was already receiving multiple requests from industry partners to have their graduates in hospitality and tourism management answer recruitment calls.

"While many may resort to engaging part-timers to overcome the manpower crunch, the service experience provided may not be comparable," said the Arde spokesman.

"Most of the time, it adds to the workload of the lean full-time strength, creating more push factors out of the industry.

"We have to be more creative and flexible in managing the limited pool of manpower."

Observers said that in the long run, hospitality and F&B sectors need to keep transforming and innovating to stay ahead in the game - something the Government has encouraged throughout the pandemic with grants and initiatives.

Mr James Walton, Deloitte Singapore's travel, hospitality and services sector leader, said: "For instance, we have seen many F&B companies move towards the use of digital ordering, and hotels with more digital functionality for guests in checking in, ordering - these ultimately result in less labour being required."

He believes that while Singapore's measured reopening will allow companies to adapt, there will ultimately still be a labour shortfall that could lead to the likes of wage inflation - though he also suggested that gig workers in food delivery could pivot to the F&B sector, as more people feel comfortable eating out again.

"The recovery will happen, but the question is how the Government will work within the local labour market and foreign talent quotas, and incentivise innovation in the sectors, in order to find a balance," he said.

"(One) that fulfils the agenda while protecting local jobs and raising the income of people."

Source: The Straits Times