Press | As Covid-19 hits job market, HR firms roll up sleeves

Words by Ng Qi Siang This article was originally published on on 15th January 2021


Graduation is typically a time for hope in the future, as the new graduates ponder the future’s infinite possibilities. But as the class of 2021 huddles behind their Zoom screens for makeshift graduation ceremonies, the only emotion many of these young people will feel is fear.

As Covid-19 ravages the global economy, young people have seen jobs and internships abruptly withdrawn as firms hunker down to defend their cash flows from the almighty headwinds of the worst recession since independence.

Unemployment among citizens and permanent residents (PRs) rose to 4.7% last September — its highest figure since the 4.9% recorded during the Global Financial Crisis in 2009 — with this figure seen to peak in 2H2020.

This is still some way off the 6.2% seen during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Singapore’s overall unemployment rate of 3.6% in September is also relatively low vis-a-vis other developed economies like the US with 7.9%, thanks in part to the government’s Jobs Support Scheme which has encouraged beleaguered employers to hold onto their staff.

But the numbers do not reflect the anxiety of affected workers, with 78,800 Singaporeans out of work in June last year, and the number rising further to 97,700 in September. A survey of 500 Singaporeans by marketing communications firm Wunderman Thompson Singapore revealed that about 78% of Singaporeans are worried about the prevailing economic situation. The level of anxiety among 35 to 39-year-olds — or 80.3% of the respondent — is high. However, younger people also share this sentiment. A worried political science graduate told The Convergence, an organ of the NUS Students’ Political Association, that graduating in a recession year would see graduates earn less than their peers in the long-run due to depressed starting wages.

At the very least, they are not sitting still. According to career-focused social media website LinkedIn, job-seeking activity is at record levels. Nearly 40 million people are using the platform to search for jobs each week and three people are hired every minute on LinkedIn. But competition for jobs has gotten stiffer, with the average number of applicants per job posted on its job portal increasing from around 40 at the beginning of 2020, to almost 55 as of last July. LinkedIn finds that the number of fresh graduates going into internships has grown sixfold y-o-y in 2020.

The good news is, with signs of recovery becoming more apparent towards the end of 2020, there has been a tepid improvement from job seekers’ perspectives. The so-called “hiring rate” — defined as the number of hires out of LinkedIn’s total membership — has improved since reaching its lowest point in June. As of end November, this gauge was at 12% y-o-y, up from just 5% in September.

Similar observations have been made elsewhere. According to recruitment site Wantedly, about 88% of the approximately 1,000 companies featured on their online hiring freeze tracker in October were hiring, with only around 7% of these still on hiring freeze. While most are hiring more for replacement of existing headcount rather than for growth, this is an encouraging trend for jobseekers.

LinkedIn finds that the bulk of these openings are from tech firms looking for software engineers, followed by mostly managerial-level roles or roles requiring some degree of technical skill. The real estate sector saw a 103% y-o-y increase in LinkedIn job posts in September-November 2020.

Wantedly Singapore country manager Andrew Tan, meanwhile, also sees retail, education, healthcare, consulting, finance, logistics and F&B in the chasing pack. LinkedIn’s list of top employers in Singapore include big tech outfits like Shopee — the e-commerce arm of Sea — and Amazon Web Services (AWS), the fast-growing cloud computing subsidiary of Amazon. Some of Singapore’s three local banks, Standard Chartered and legacy employers like the National University of Singapore and Singapore Telecommunications are hiring, too. LinkedIn statistics also highlights that among hard skills, project management, JavaScript, account management and business analysis are the most sought after.

On the bright side, the Singapore managing director of UK-based human resource firm PageGroup Nilay Khandelwal sees many Western businesses setting up regional hubs in Asia, with a recent growth surge of hedge funds and family offices looking to set up shop in Singapore, thanks to favourable regulatory frameworks for asset managers (see sidebar). While it is still early days, the growth of such financial institutions could potentially be a long-term driver of growth over a six to 10-year lifecycle, which could improve demand for workers in finance. Additionally, the Singapore economy is becoming increasingly open to relying on contractual arrangements to temporarily fulfil headcount requirements, potentially opening up hiring opportunities for workers while also creating the possibility of permanent employment in better times. “We do see 2021 to be better off unless something bizarre happens at the end [of 2020],” Khandelwal tells The Edge Singapore, based on conversations with clients.

Many helping hands

Nevertheless, desperate job-seekers are seeking the assistance of recruiters and HR solution providers in a bid to find work. Wantedly for instance saw user numbers in Singapore grow from about 50,000 in 2019 to approximately 80,000 last year. A general increase in “Wantedly Score” — a measure of how complete one’s Wantedly profile is — also implies more deliberate use of the platform since Covid-19 began. Inquiries have streamed in from users outside Wantedly’s core base of millennial tech talent. Mid-career workers in other industries like hospitality as well as blue collar workers, for example, are turning to this site in bigger numbers.

Wantedly’s Tan says that its team has increasingly begun going above and beyond for their users. The hiring freeze tracker was designed to help workers with their job search, relying on community information and first-hand information to help job-seekers allocate time and effort optimally away from firms who are not hiring. Wantedly has also start ed providing pro bono career services to “talent communities” such as the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS) to send relevant job listings to these communities as well.

Not to be outdone, LinkedIn has launched a career explorer tool to help job-seekers identify new career paths based on their current skills as well as new skills they should learn to pivot into new roles and industries. Moreover, it has introduced a new role-specific interview prep tool for in-demand roles like software engineers, project managers and business analysts, to give users an edge in obtaining such roles. The company has also made free 10 LinkedIn Learning Paths for members, aligned with in-demand roles to help job-seekers develop the necessary skills, with a certificate of completion offered to participants on completion that can be added to their LinkedIn profile.

Indeed, with digitalisation accelerating in the wake of the pandemic, reskilling for the digital economy will arguably be essential to stave off impending structural unemployment of workers without sufficient skills for the post-Covid economy. “Workers across industries must figure out how they can adapt to rapidly changing conditions, and companies have to learn how to match those workers to new roles and activities,” warns consulting firm McKinsey. Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has urged Singaporeans to take on the challenge of acquiring new skills throughout their careers and even learn whole new disciplines to “regear to stay on track”.

Noting that two in three employers say digital upskilling is top of their training agenda during the pandemic, NTUC Learning Hub — a social enterprise under the National Trade Unions Congress (NTUC) — is offering over $1 million worth of access to free courses on its online platform LHUB GO in line with last year’s National Day. This amounts to 100 free courses offered to the general public and 200 free courses to NTUC union members for a period of six months. The courses cover adaptive, technology and technical skills in demand, featuring new curated pathways that align with employer-coveted skill sets such as leadership and data analytics.

“We were encouraged by the high sign-up and platform engagement rates of the free courses we launched during the “circuit breaker” period. I would like to encourage the current learners to learn more and the new learners to join in and seize the opportunity to upskill or get a taste of new subjects through this platform. There is never a better time to take that first step to learn, as we ride through this trying pandemic,” said NTUC Learning Hub’s late CEO Kwek Kok Kwong at the launch last August.

Ultimately, it is soft skills that prove a key differentiator between applicants. Yeoh Wan Qing, chief product officer of social enterprise Hatch — which trains youths seeking roles in digital marketing, a growing, evolving, discipline which includes key elements of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) — says that employers expect applicants to have the flexibility to work from home and communicate clearly in the absence of in-person interaction. Meanwhile, Wantedly’s Tan also wants his hires to exhibit community leadership, which he defines as showing empathy and good will for others in tough times.

Hiring with a human touch

Beyond retraining and allocating workers to suitable roles, HR firms are also increasingly emphasising the importance of demonstrating empathy and a personal touch during hiring. Noting that workers are likely to prioritise getting “any job that pays” in this difficult job market, the consensus among most firms is that workers should also pay attention to organisational and professional fit on top of their immediate financial needs. Part of their role, after all, is to ensure that both employers and employees are happy with their respective job placements.

While recruitment is often described as a “sales job”, recruitment firm Caliber8 — which specialises in financial and maritime hiring — sees its role as more than a clearing house between talent and businesses. Director Karthik Balakrishnan, who runs Caliber8’s finance and accounting practice, tells The Edge Singapore that his firm’s practice is to provide feedback to candidates on their interview performance and assess a candidate’s cultural fit for an organisation. Nobody is sent to an interview without having been prepared via a direct meeting, he explains, which also helps employers maximise the time invested in interviewing a candidate.

Balakrishnan sees himself and his colleagues as more than just recruiters. “We call ourselves talent advisors,” he says proudly, as he redefines his role as to include educating clients on how to better present themselves and put their best foot forward during the interview process. The firm conducts workshops for candidates, provides training materials for them and verifies the qualifications of potential candidates. Recruitment, he explains, is more than sending a CV to an employer and expecting something to happen. It is about taking a more personal approach to ensure that both employees and employers are a good fit for one another.

Similarly, Hatch has a career coach call potential candidates about whether digital marketing is a good fit for them and in line with their expectations. Training programmes, says Yeoh, are tailored based on the objectives of a hire, with job-seekers pushed for immersive programmes while those looking to explore are sent to a more exploratory-based “accelerator” programme. The firm recommends students seeking a more theoretical and formal schooling-oriented approach to consider other programmes.

Career coaching is a key part of the Hatch student process. Beyond being taught to write a resume geared towards finding a job in industry, participants are challenged to define their own career aspirations. Candidates are paired with mentors who have previously worked in digital marketing also. Better yet, Hatch matches candidates who have completed the programme to companies who best meet their strengths and interests while also reviewing with them how far they have met their training milestones throughout their course.

“I think the balance comes in helping [candidates] see in the long-term what they want to get out of [a job],” Yeoh tells The Edge Singapore. Conversations facilitated by Hatch, she says, revolves around whether the candidates could see themselves working in digital marketing over the next five years. Candidates, she believes, should consider their career moves based on the big picture of their long-run career plans instead of purely based on short-term pressures — balancing the two is essential. Even if such decisions involve an element of risk, PageGroup’s Khandelwal also notes that nothing comes risk-free and urges job-seekers to take calculated risks in their search.

For employers, however, empathy towards job candidates is essential as well. For instance, retrenchment exercises done badly, warns Wantedly’s Tan, could prove a reputational risk to firms when they look to fill their ranks post-Covid-19. Even small gestures like providing a clear response on the outcome of a hiring process can go a long way towards building trust and goodwill between firms and future employees, easing their post-Covid recruitment process. After all, at the fundamental level, an economy cannot recover from any crisis without the right people doing the right jobs.

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