THE white-collar employment market in Singapore has rebounded strongly in the aftermath of the global economic downturn.

The initial phase of recovery was driven by companies that were already established in Singapore. Many were operating with significantly reduced staff numbers as a consequence of the redundancies that occurred during the downturn.

As business conditions improved, these employers increased headcount quickly from a very low base to take advantage of opportunities for growth. This resulted in a sharp spike in hiring activity during the first half of 2010.

While this trend has continued into the second half of the year, the rate of investment in new staff has moderated, with most of the critical hires for the year already completed.

Companies remain cautious about their bottom lines and are hiring based on their staffing requirements for the next six months, as opposed to the next two years.

Fortunately, this slight easing in hiring activity is being offset by the entry of new multinationals into the Singapore market. Global companies are looking to South-east Asia as a core growth market, given the ongoing uncertainties plaguing the American and European economies.

Within South-east Asia, Singapore is regarded as a logical business hub, with its well-qualified workforce and the required infrastructure to support international business activities.

Government tax incentives have further encouraged multinationals to set up regional headquarters in Singapore and this is also having a positive effect.

The latest quarterly labour market report from the Ministry of Manpower shows that total employment rose for the fourth consecutive quarter, with more than 24,000 new jobs created in the second quarter of 2010.

This brings total job growth for the first half of the year to 61,400, as opposed to a loss of 13,800 during the same period in 2009.

Redundancies are at pre-recessionary levels and job vacancies have risen by more than 70 per cent so far this year.

These positive labour market statistics accurately reflect the trends we are seeing in the white-collar employment market. The financial services, bio-pharmaceutical and semiconductor industries are experiencing high levels of job growth, a trend that is expected to continue into 2011.

In financial services, more banks are setting up regional hubs in Singapore and this is driving demand for professionals with specialist skills in compliance and technology.

Private banking is a core growth market and many employers are recruiting seasoned banking talent from overseas markets like the United Kingdom (UK) and Europe.

The bio-pharmaceutical industry is also experiencing strong growth. Singapore is fast becoming a research and development (R&D) hub in the region and this is fuelling demand for research talent.

Highly skilled R&D professionals with managerial experience in markets such as Switzerland and the UK are being targeted. Many are being successfully recruited because of the extensive career opportunities they see in South-east Asia.

Hiring activity in the semiconductor industry has also improved significantly in 2010. During the economic downturn, there were severe cuts in semiconductor production levels, which flowed through to widespread job losses.

Companies have been aggressively recruiting during the first half of 2010 to replenish these staff numbers, with a particular focus on computing, consumer electronics and medical markets.

The outlook for the semiconductor industry in Asia is extremely positive, considering China and India are two of the fastest growing markets for electronics products.

Challenge to retain staff

Staff retention is a major challenge for employers in the current market. During the economic downturn, companies retained their top frontline performers and support staff with business critical skills.

Many of these employees were asked to cope with increased responsibility and work volumes without a review of salary.

Now that the employment market is recovering, these employees are less cautious about a career move and are actively looking for their next opportunity.

Some employers will have the capacity to offer larger increases to retain their most valued employees, but in all cases, the challenge will be in balancing increased payroll costs with the pace of revenue growth.