Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has strongly urged the social service sector to do more to raise salaries for its professionals.
This is an "area which needs improving if we are to develop a strong social service profession", he said yesterday at the official opening of the Social Service Institute (SSI).
"The sector must pay competitive wages. Today, salary levels of various social service professionals lag that of their peers in other sectors."
According to a salary survey conducted by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) between October and December last year, more than 85 per cent of government-funded voluntary welfare organisations have increased wages by a median of 8 per cent.
A social worker fresh out of university is now paid about $2,760 a month. Figures from the Graduate Employment Survey by several universities here showed that the median pay for all new graduates last year was $3,050.
"We must keep up this practice of paying staff competitively," said Mr Tharman, who was the guest of honour at yesterday's event at the SSI's new premises in TripleOne Somerset.
The SSI, previously known as the Social Service Training Institute (SSTI), will provide training courses and programmes for those in the sector.
It will have new facilities including a career centre for those interested to work in the social services.
Increasing wages to attract more to the sector is key given the manpower crunch facing the industry.
Currently, there are 1,400 registered social workers and social service practitioners, said a spokesman for the Ministry of Social and Family Development. There is an estimated annual shortfall of about 150 social workers.
"The social service profession is... at the core of our collective effort to build a better Singapore," said Mr Tharman, who is also Finance Minister. "We must groom a larger pool of committed, qualified and skilled social service professionals."
While organisations agreed that competitive wages are important, they also said that some may be reluctant to pay staff more as they could use the money for beneficiaries instead.
Non-profit youth organisation Heartware Network founder Raymond Huang said: "We need to pay more to have better-quality staff. But we can't pay as much as the private sector. Besides, pay should not be the main criteria in this industry."
Mr Daniel Chien, chief operating officer of the family service centres under Care Corner Singapore, added: "We have to ensure that we pay competitively to attract people but the main reason why they join should be to serve and help people."