Stanley Teo, Managing Director of Profile, A WilsonHCG Company, discusses the current hiring landscape in Singapore during the current COVID-19 outbreak.
With over 2 million infections and over 125,000 fatalities worldwide, the COVID-19 outbreak is one of the single largest disrupters to global markets, supply chains, healthcare, social mobility and, most importantly, people’s daily lives, within the last century.
In this commentary piece, we aim to assess the impact of COVID-19 on the hiring practices here in Singapore over the last three months, from when it first hit our shores to the current state. We can distil the effects of the pandemic into two sections: the first wave and the second wave.
FIRST WAVE: January – February 2020
Countries affected by COVID-19: China, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and several other countries across Asia.
Number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Singapore from January through February 2020
Source: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
First Wave Impact on the Recruitment Landscape
China was the most significant casualty during the first wave of this crisis. With the US and Europe unaffected except for single-digit infections, most of our clients in Singapore and Hong Kong, who primarily consist of global MNCs across commerce and financial services from those markets, were still pretty much business as usual.
Headcount growth and replacement plans were still on track as per business plans. Interviews went ahead as scheduled and offer letters were issued under the usual approval process. The only disruptions were that most interviews were not conducted face-to-face, but rather through video conferences or teleconference. For face-to-face interviews, candidates had to declare if they had travelled to key affected areas within 14 days of the scheduled interview.
Across Asia, firms activated their business continuity plans and those that did not have one quickly mirrored what they could learn from clients or vendors. Working from home became the buzzword across Asia.
In Singapore, the government noted the possible risk of markets and hiring slowing. They swiftly appended their annual budget to implement the first backstop of policies supporting local employees through their Stabilisation and Support package, aiming to support employees’ employment status through wage support and training grants.
In comparison, during SARS in 2003, everything in Asia came to a grinding halt. Client meetings and interviews were abruptly cancelled with no teleconference options, no face-to-face meetings were held, and all hiring was rapidly put on hold and reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
So for the first two months of COVID-19, recruitment across Singapore, although inconvenienced, seemed to be tracking on, and was not a repeat of SARS.
SECOND WAVE: March – April 2020
Fast forward another month, and what a difference a month makes. The narrative here is a lot more sombre.
Vast numbers of COVID-19 cases started to envelop Northern Italy, Spain, France and now most of Europe. The US was not let off, and the number of infections across the US as of April 1 had surpassed both Italy and Spain combined. Most of Asia was stabilising by the end of February, but the pandemic that swept through Europe and the US introduced a second wave into Asia.
Number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Singapore from January through 15 April 2020
Source: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
The Second Wave’s Immediate Impact
The most impacted industries include global aviation, and tourism-related industries such as hospitality, retail and entertainment.
As US and EU clients start implementing their BCP plans, some have also implemented firm-wide work-from-home policies, where telecommuting is now the norm. We are seeing the ugly head of global wage cuts and reductions taking place in aggressive mode.
Second Wave Impact on Recruitment Landscape
Due to the scale and uncertainty of the outbreak, many companies are reviewing their global headcount needs. The message we hear from most clients is that it is not a total freeze, but instead, they are pausing for now and reviewing headcounts on a case by case basis. After this review, many plan to “unpause” the headcount freeze for those roles deemed essential. However, for others, they will likely keep headcount on hold and will begin hiring again when the outbreak is over.
For companies where hiring is still taking place, interview processes are taking longer, and offer letter approval processes are going through multiple channels up the hierarchy.
But it is not all doom and gloom on the recruitment front.
China is picking up again and ramping up its manufacturing and industrial activities. Consumers are gradually able to get back outside instead of being locked in; however, the country is very cautious to minimise the impact of the second wave. Our business in China is almost back to normal, but we are exercising caution and ensuring our team takes all of the necessary precautions.
Businesses and large operations headquartered in Asia are still selectively growing and hiring, although not at the same pace of 2019. This lack of a total hiring freeze is unlike what happened during SARS, and so, shows promise.
Additionally, people are still changing jobs. Our candidates are receiving more than one offer, and firms that have a longer-term vision see this as a significant strategic opportunity to pick up talent for when things improve.
The Singapore government has done a fantastic job in propping up the country and its people’s confidence in the face of this pandemic by supporting the most vulnerable and most adversely affected members of society. They are swift in their response to the pandemic, and are transparent in their communication, delivering both the good and bad news and keeping the country on a “business as usual” path.
As the second wave of the pandemic hit the US and Europe, as well as wiped out large chunks of global financial markets, the Singapore government was swift to act. They delivered an additional SGD 48-billion package to support workers, businesses and households across Singapore in hopes of staving off reduction and retaining jobs for as long as possible.
This package, along with the Stabilisation and Support packages, has also factored in benefits and schemes to assist those workers who may ultimately get retrenched. There is no better time for these workers to rethink the relevance of their skills in this fast-moving economy, and perhaps opt for retraining and reskilling. We have often heard from employees that they do not have the time to retrain for fear they will lose their current job, or that they are doing fine in their existing role with no need to upskill.
Although retraining and upskilling may not be for everyone, the intent is good and the financial support is generous. Many of the jobs these employees used to perform may not exist when the pandemic is over. It is a commendable strategy by the government to help affected employees get back on their feet.
These last three months have been the most testing times for professional and personal lives, and we know there is possibly more bad news to come. As we read the doom and gloom daily across the print, live and social media, there are some bright spots here in Singapore, and across Hong Kong and China as well.
For one, as the second-largest global economy, China is starting to rev up again. Perhaps it is too early to call, but the outlook is much better than it was in February and early March.
Internally and externally, we are still observing people working hard to maintain and increase productivity, albeit in a new work-from-home setting as they adjust to a new norm where they cannot travel to see customers or vendors. Working hours have not reduced, and as a matter of fact, many are putting in more hours in a day to provide assurance and support to clients and business partners wherever they are located.
People have become more empathetic in this robust environment. Client and vendors alike are working hard to ensure the supply and demand chain communications remain open. Although workflows will get slower, the relationships will strengthen because we are all in this together. We are all trying our best to help and support each other in any way we can.
At the end of the day, resilience is vital. We think the name for the Singapore government’s second support package (Resilience Package) is a very apt title for any organisation looking to come out of this stronger. Through our numerous tele-conversations and video meetings with clients across Singapore and other parts of Asia, we are confident that when this pandemic comes to an end, activities will pick up significantly, and the curve for business and hiring activities will head upwards again.