Singapore's boom is great, but its laborers are few. A challenge to attract and retain good people

Behind the black curtain on one side of the factory, workers are running quality-assurance tests on the nearly complete color video monitors. One woman, watching five screens simultaneously, is trying to get rid of the green tint in the corner of a screen that is otherwise red. The woman is also trained to run an automated machine that assembles component boards of integrated circuits. She is part of a training program that her company, Conrac Singapore Pte. Ltd., has put in place to reduce employee turnover. In an industry notorious for turnovers and job-hopping - and in a country with a shortage of workers - Conrac's training program has halted the problem, at least for now.

``We've had very little turnover in the last three or four months,'' says Joe Aparicio, Conrac's managing director. The company employs 112 people.

``This is because we're trying to turn our work force into nonspecialists. Each employee can learn many jobs, rather than being kept in one job,'' he explains. This approach also helps keep production-line jobs filled.

Large and small employers in Singapore's electronics industry are resorting to incentives, higher wages, and foreign workers to keep up production in a tight labor market.

Because of Singapore's international competitiveness and a worldwide demand for electronics, the country's manufacturing sector is experiencing ``the best of times for business and the worst of times for hiring,'' says the personnel officer for the Singapore branch of a large United States company.

In the first quarter of this year, Singapore's manufacturing sector increased its output by 20.3 percent. During those three months, 20,000 new jobs were created, 14,000 of them in manufacturing, as the country's economic growth rate hit 10.9 percent, according to a government economic survey.

``This is probably the busiest time I can remember,'' says the spokesperson for a US multinational firm that employs 2,700 people in Singapore and makes keyboards, printers, and calculators.

Singapore, with 2.6 million people on an island 620 square kilometers in area, is not in much of a position to meet its own labor requirements.

Even at the end of 1987, unemployment was only 2.8 percent, according to government figures.

``The population base is not large enough to support the high growth rate in the industry,'' the personnel officer says. ``A lot of companies are drawing on the same pool of workers. The biggest challenge to an employer is the ability to attract and retain good people.''

The Straits Times, the country's main newspaper, carries page after page of help-wanted advertisements each day. Companies offer incentives to attract employees, including meal allowances, bonuses, transportation to and from work, insurance, medical benefits, and even recreational facilities.

There's a great demand right now for female production operators. These women earn a starting salary between Singapore$420 (US$210) and Singapore$650 a month. For this job, employers expect at least a primary-school education and the ability to understand English.

``Employees can pick where they want to go, and we pay high wages,'' says the human-resources manager of a multinational company that assembles circuit boards and employs 250 people in Singapore.

``We try to make interviewing easy for them,'' she adds. The company interviews in hotels, allows people to come to interviews without an appointment, and provides transportation to interviews.

She is currently looking for three technicians.

To meet their labor needs, companies may hire some foreign workers on limited work permits. Some companies bring in busloads of female workers from Malaysia and put them up in temporary housing.

The government said that for the three months ending in April, manufacturers recruited 2,500 foreign workers each month. In 1987, foreign workers filled more than half of the 48,000 jobs created in manufacturing companies. The workers come primarily from Malaysia and other countries in the region.

Furthermore, foreign workers are hired because some Singaporeans do not want assembly work; they have higher expectations and education.

``The Singaporean work force is becoming quite affluent,'' says the human-resources manager. ``People are not just looking for high pay; they want a challenge and opportunities for growth.''

This year, employees in electronics companies could receive wage increases as high as 10 percent, while workers in other industries might get a minimum average increase of 7 percent, Ong Teng Cheong, the second deputy prime minister, announced June 19.

Mr. Aparicio of Conrac says he has budgeted for 7 percent average salary increases for fiscal year 1988. ``It's probably inevitable that wages will go up,'' he says.

Business surveys and economic indicators suggest that Singapore's business outlook is bright. The government hails the first quarter figures as a full economic recovery, following the recession in 1985. The Trade and Industry Ministry has revised its projections for growth this year to between 6 and 7 percent, up from between 5 and 6 percent. (The economies of the three other ``newly industrializing countries'' - Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan - are projecting growth between 7 and 8 percent.)

Given Singapore's expectations, companies may soon face an even-tighter labor market. The human-resources manager at the mulitnational company who has been looking for three technicians seems unfazed. ``If we don't get them, we'll just run another advertisement and try again,'' she says.

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