FOR four months, coffee and kaya toast chain Ya Kun has been trying to hire eight waiters and cleaners for an outlet it wants to open at the Singapore Flyer.

The shutters are still down.

'Several people enquired but not a single person turned up for the interviews. Zero,' said its operations manager Jimmy Ng yesterday.

Ya Kun's struggle is familiar to many Singapore companies in the services sector, especially when seeking rank-and-file workers for largely low-skilled jobs that pay around $1,200 a month.

The latest official figures show the number of job vacancies at record levels.

In all, there were 50,200 vacancies in September last year, a four-year high.

This peak is about one-third more than the 36,900 recorded a year earlier, according to the Job Vacancies Report of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), released yesterday. The figures, based on data from 12,600 establishments, are up to September 2010.

As for jobs that remain unfilled for at least six months, the picture is even bleaker. The number soared to a five-year high of 15,360 - a rise of 51.5 per cent from the 10,140 a year ago.

Four in five of these extended vacancies are for rank-and-file workers, with the rest for white-collar workers.

The situation will persist, if not worsen, said economists and recruitment agencies interviewed.

Said economist Tan Khee Giap of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy: 'It will only get tighter as I expect Singapore to create at least another 100,000 jobs this year.'

The reason? He sees the economy growing at 6.5 per cent, and the unemployment rate falling close to 1.5 per cent.

The services sector will continue to be the hardest hit, with 75 per cent of the job openings last September. In manufacturing, it was 17 per cent and construction, around 7 per cent.

MOM attributes the soaring number of job vacancies to Singapore's 'rapid and robust economic recovery'. The economy grew by 14.7 per cent last year and and is expected to expand by 4 to 6 per cent this year.

The rebound saw the unemployment rate going down to 2.1 per cent - the lowest since 1.9 per cent in March 2008 - while the employment rate of residents aged 25 to 64 hit a record 77.1 per cent last June, up from 75.8 per cent in 2009.

Recruitment agency Adecco Southeast Asia's regional director Lynne Ng said that job-seekers now are holding out for the right job, instead of jumping at the first offer.

Mr Josh Goh, assistant director for corporate services at recruiter The GMP Group, said the last time the labour market was so tight was between 2007 and early 2008.

Now, as then, the worst-off sectors are banking and finance, and retail.

Mr Goh believes that to get new hires, 'employers need to review their salaries and pay market rate'.

Barclays Capital economist Leong Wai Ho said the worker shortage will remain, at least in the first half, because the two integrated resorts have yet to open all its offerings. At the same time, investments in manufacturing continue to pour in.

The squeeze would be most keenly felt in tourism-related industries and marine engineering, he added.

But Mr Ong Ye Kung, chairman of NTUC's Employment and Employability Institute, believes employers can get the workers they want when they offer better pay, which they can do by raising productivity.

One way to ease it, said Barclays Capital's Mr Leong, is for the Government to be flexible about foreign worker policies, especially the higher levies introduced last year as part of its move to encourage employers to raise productivity and rely less on cheap foreign labour.

Ya Kun's Mr Ng hopes it will happen soon as the company plans to add another 20 outlets to its existing 40 employing 280 workers.

'It will be terrific if the Government allows us to hire more foreigners. It will be very good news for us,' he said.