Five of Singapore's "boldest and most innovative" employers in people management were honoured last night with the first Human Capital Breakthrough Award.

The five who received their award from Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin at a gala dinner at Ritz Carlton were hair and beauty salon chain J's Beauty International, boutique hotel owner The Scarlet, the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), SATS and Sentosa Development Corporation.

The accolade was initiated by Human Capital Singapore, the government-appointed Continuing Education and Training centre for development in HR Workforce Skills Qualification.

The Asia Competitiveness Institute of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the National University of Singapore's Business School are also behind the award, which is supported by SPRING Singapore and the Singapore Workforce Development Agency.

The five award winners were picked from 22 employers who subjected themselves to a year-long scrutiny of their human resource (HR) practices.

The practices of the 22 employers have been compiled into a book of case studies titled The Human Capital Breakthrough Journey.

In his speech last night, Mr Tan said the experiences of the 22 participants showed what could be done to nurture, develop and engage workers to go the extra mile for the employer.

As operators in the private sector, where the bottom line counts, he said they demonstrated what it takes to achieve good performance.

"For those who believe in building great sustainable companies, perhaps this is a key ingredient," said Mr Tan.

J's Beauty, which won the award in the small organisations category and which the minister highlighted, revived Wits - the Work Improvement Teams of the 1980s - but called them Gits (Growth Improvement Teams) instead, to get its hair stylists, manicurists and pedicurists to make suggestions which the management adopted.

In a talent-scarce job market, the initiative worked with the Central Singapore Community Development Council to identify and recruit new talent.

Employees are treated like family members and get a cut of the company's profits.

The Scarlet, another small business, overcame its limited resources by doing on-site training to save travelling time and got more employees to attend courses. It takes a "train-the-trainer" approach with external courses. Employees who go to these courses return to teach other staff what they have learnt.

ITE, which has 2,600 full-time staff, launched a centralised on-boarding programme that enables new academic staff to complete their training within one year of service. It also set up an ITE Academy as a central body for all-round staff training and development.

SATS, a regional provider of gateway services and food solutions, has an even bigger workforce of 16,000. One of its biggest fears is that it will face a manpower shortage as its older workers retire.

So SATS has put in place age-friendly policies. The union is happy with them and is lending its all-out support.

At Sentosa, the chief executive takes the lead in engaging employees. He's involved in one-to-one meetings with new hires, monthly division updates, townhall and dialogue sessions.

Sentosa also stages Management-in-Action Days when managers work with frontline staff to better appreciate the challenges faced on the frontline.