Since last November, the Ministry of Manpower has allowed companies that meet specified conditions some leeway to bring in foreign professionals, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said yesterday.
The key requirements are that the skills they need must be in demand globally, but lacking locally, and the companies have to consider Singaporeans fairly when hiring.
Their industry must also have plans to develop such skills among locals to ensure "the short-term flexibility will not lead to long-term dependency", Mr Lim told 700 company officials at a dialogue.
If they satisfy most of the conditions, sector agencies can recommend some flexibility when assessing their applications for Employment Passes (EPs).
EP holders must be paid at least $3,600 a month and have good academic qualifications or special skills. The ministry has been working with the Economic Development Board, National Research Foundation and Infocomm Media Development Authority on this initiative, and also plans to work with Enterprise Singapore.
"Our door remains open to foreign professionals, especially those with the skills needed for businesses to transform, and at the same time have skills which are in short supply in Singapore," Mr Lim said in assuring employers.
He and Second Manpower Minister Josephine Teo both spoke at the event about measures announced during the parliamentary debate on the ministry's budget on Monday.
Mr Lim addressed feedback raised after the debate about tighter foreign manpower policies, like a higher qualifying salary for workers on S Passes. Some employers had said this would raise their costs as they are unable to find suitable Singaporeans for the roles.
He also acknowledged the concern that there is a shortage of local talent, especially in high-tech areas such as artificial intelligence, cyber security and data analytics.
Schemes such as the Capability Transfer Programme (CTP) and Lean Enterprise Development Scheme can support employers who need higher-or lower-skilled foreign workers for a transitional period, so that local staff can be trained, he said.
The Government's policy on foreign manpower has to be both pro-worker and pro-business, Mr Lim added at the event organised by the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF).
Businesses must be able to transform and grow, but not at the expense of local workers. Thus, he stressed that companies should become less reliant on labour, especially from abroad.
To moderate the growth of the foreign workforce here, the ministry has tightened EP requirements in recent years.
The approval rate for new EP applications has remained stable at about 80 per cent, said Mr Lim, resulting in about 50,000 new passes, on average, being issued annually over the last three years. At the same time, a similar number of passes were not renewed yearly.
"We are trying our very best to design the foreign manpower policy to, on the one hand, maximise our economic gains from the foreign workforce and, on the other hand, minimise social pain," the minister said.
Mrs Teo said government programmes in the Adapt and Grow initiative, which places job-seekers in jobs and upgrades their skills, also help bosses find good local staff.
More than half of over 25,000 job-seekers placed last year were professionals, managers, executives and technicians - "people you need for your businesses", she said.
SNEF president Robert Yap said, after a closed-door portion of the dialogue, that employers both large and small are keen to tap the ministry's initiatives such as the CTP to develop new capabilities.
He added: "Employers now understand that the foreign manpower policy remains open and they need to hire better-quality foreigners to complement the local workforce."