There's no denying that Singapore has more jobs than it has workers for. Since the end of 2009, between 20,000 and 37,000 new jobs have been coming on-stream every three months. But we are not seeing enough locals entering the workforce, and with the caps on foreign labour introduced last year, the food and beverage (F&B) industry in particular has been feeling the impact of a severe manpower crunch.
The F&B sector is one industry that is especially labour-intensive and has traditionally relied on foreign workers from Asian countries such as the Philippines, South Korea, China, Malaysia and Taiwan. They have been working in our F&B establishments as waiters and waitresses, cooks, kitchen assistants, bartenders and cashiers.
Since July 2012, when the dependency ratio for foreign workers was reduced from 50 to 45 per cent, restaurants have had to rely more on attracting local workers to fill these positions. The situation has become progressively more challenging. Workers sometimes fail even to respond to higher pay if they know that the job comes with long hours of doing menial work.
The situation will only get tougher as the dependency ratio is reduced further to 40 per cent from July this year and S pass holders from 20 to 15 per cent. Foreign worker levies will also be going up. All these measures will further exacerbate the labour situation and raise the cost of doing business.
Figures from the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority showed that 686 restaurants were set up last year, translating to about two openings a day. But with the closing of 537 restaurants, we saw a nett increase of 149 new restaurants, double that of 2011.
Many restaurants say that they need about 10 to 40 per cent more staff to function optimally. Despite this, restaurant groups are looking at opening more outlets and looking to hire. With overall annual average unemployment rate at a low of 2 per cent last year, there seem to be too many jobs and not enough eligible applicants.
It may seem that there may be more "career prospects" for service staff working in an outlet within a hotel or large restaurant group, as they can be deployed to different outlets and learn to operate in different environments. This is not always the case. In a standalone restaurant however, there's greater flexibility for a service staff to take the initiative to learn different skills, especially during peak and busy periods. If a server can learn to be a cashier, and know how to pair wine and food, it's good for both the restaurant owner and the staff.
It all boils down to mindset, and on this, I feel that we can start moulding them even before they leave school. As an industry, we can reach out to the many polytechnics and institutions that run F&B and hospitality courses, as well as those taking the Workforce Development Agency's (WDA's) Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) F&B training framework.
Yes, while no one will be spared the pain of the manpower crunch, I do feel that we can collectively come together to address it and take pro-active action to ride out this storm.
From our viewpoint at the Food & Beverage Managers Association (FBMA), one key area to address is the perception of jobs in the F&B industry. Right now - a job in a restaurant comes with low pay and long hours. For a young person, it's a grind, and a job as a waiter or server, kitchen assistant, cashier, is often regarded as a "temporary job" or to earn supplementary income until something better comes their way. Likewise, for many employers or restaurant operators, high staff turnover has become the expected norm.
Through our various programmes, the FBMA is encouraging more F&B staff to have better product knowledge, acquire professional skills and to multi-task, so that at the end of the day, they will take greater pride, and have greater passion in what they do.
One recommended initiative is for independent operators to come together to collaborate and have their staff cross train and be exposed to different skill sets at the various restaurants within the association.
The salary bar within the industry also needs to be raised. This will help to attract more of our local Singaporeans to work in F&B. As the FBMA works towards encouraging greater productivity among service staff and raising service standards, we urge F&B operators to consider more financial incentives, in order to lift the entire industry in terms of perception and expectations.
It is also time for us to bring our local talent back from overseas to fill up management roles. On this - the association has mentored more than 500 upcoming F&B enthusiasts who we deem to have an aptitude and passion for the industry. We are grooming these future leaders by giving them the necessary exposure and guidance, and we hope that the key industry stakeholders will do the same.
The FBMA has rolled out several initiatives over these past years to raise the profile of F&B jobs. We organise "The Amazing Waiter's Race" for serving staff every year, where it's a battle of skills and wit. We also support the Dream Team Challenge at one of Singapore's major F&B events - Food & Hotel Asia where teams from all over the world are required to deliver the ultimate F&B experience to diners. And since 2011, we have been organising the Singapore National Restaurant Skills Competition in close collaboration with the WDA.
At the end of this month, the finals of the third Singapore National Restaurant Skills Competition will be held and we will see nine teams from some of our top luxury hotels showcasing their skills through delivering a full dining experience in a four-course lunch, complete with pre-meal drinks and preparation of specialty coffee.
The competition is meant to raise service standards by inspiring and encouraging staff to be trained and equipped with different skills. It is also a platform where passion and enthusiasm are recognised and rewarded. It is meant to send a clear message - that a career in F&B offers excellent prospects with the right aptitude, attitude and skill-sets, especially right here in Singapore, where the dining scene is more vibrant than it ever has been as it gains momentum towards becoming a true global dining hub.