A NATIONAL study is under way to help local firms improve their human resource practices.

The year-long study by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) will nail down the number of HR professionals here by taking a census of the sector, and find out prevalent practices in recruitment and retention to help the WDA formulate plans for the future growth of the sector.

The agency is conducting the study because the labour crunch is driving a move to higher productivity, forcing firms to improve their HR practices to make better use of their workforce.

Describing the new study as "more comprehensive" compared with previous surveys, the WDA told The Straits Times that the study will do a comprehensive survey of HR prac- tices here, weighted towards small and medium- sized enterprises and compare those practices with other countries'.

The findings will help the WDA "identify targeted strategies to help develop HR professionals and people managers in SMEs", its spokesman said.

The statutory board declined to reveal the cost and other details of the study, citing the confidentiality of the ongoing tender process. Tender documents indicate the study is divided into three phases.

First, there would be small focus group discussions with at least 50 HR professionals for a preliminary gauge of the current state of the sector, followed by a survey of another 800 from 16 industry sectors. The WDA estimates there are 24,000 HR professionals working in the private sector here.

Second, HR practices in Singapore will be compared with those in six to 10 international cities.

Third, a report will be published with suggestions on steps that SMEs can take to improve their HR practices and how more Singaporeans can be attracted to take up jobs in the HR sector.

The report, which will take 12 months to put together, is expected to be ready only next year.

While welcoming the study, some say the time frame is too long. Mr Martin Gabriel, a senior consultant with local HR firm HRmatters21, said: "Many things can happen in one year, and some of the findings now may not be relevant in a year's time."

For the measures to be more timely, he suggested that the study also spells out immediate short-term solutions that can help local firms cope with the pressing problems of low productivity and staff shortages.

Mr Mark Hall, vice-president and country manager of international recruitment consultancy Kelly Services Singapore, said the study can help local firms learn from HR practices outside Singapore.

He also suggested studying how firms can handle the younger cohort of Generation Y workers, born in the 1980s, coming into a workforce that is ageing on the whole.

Mr Chan Chong Beng, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, said the findings can help SMEs spot shortcomings in their HR functions and improve the weaknesses.

"Many SMEs do not have HR departments, the towkay bao ga liao ('the boss does everything' in Hokkien)," he said with a laugh.

He pointed out that SMEs face the perennial problem of not being able to attract and retain local workers, and having better HR practices is a positive step towards solving the problem.

But Mr Chan wished the study had been conducted earlier: "The study is a good move but it may be a bit late. Still, it is still better to do it now than not at all."