DEPUTY Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam reaffirmed yesterday the government's commitment to raise salaries in the social service sector.

He said that more than 85 per cent of voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) have raised the salaries of their staff by a median of 8 per cent.

Mr Tharman was speaking at the official opening of the National Council of Social Service's new Social Service Institute (SSI) at TripleOne Somerset.

The wage hike fulfils a promise made last March, in which the target of an 8 per cent average increase was set, and $6 million allocated for VWOs towards this. At that time, a higher pay increase target of 15 per cent was also set for social workers. The Ministry of Manpower's latest Report on Wages in Singapore, published last year, sets the basic salary of social work and counselling professionals at $3,003.

These salary increases will continue periodically as the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) conducts regular benchmarking of social service sector pay, which Mr Tharman acknowledged has lagged behind other sectors.

Said Mr Tharman: "This is a good development for our social service professionals. We must keep up this practice of paying staff competitively."

The social service labour force can be built up and deployed creatively, he said.

This year, to ease the manpower crunch in some VWOs, the MSF will recruit social service professionals above its own needs and post them to those organisations. Existing staff at VWOs will also be given opportunities for attachments at the ministry.

The newly opened SSI represents the direction towards which the social service sector in Singapore is headed. It is the successor to the 10-year-old Social Service Training Institute, and is being re-envisioned as a "one-stop career centre" for the recruitment, training and retention of social service professionals.

Last year, the institute trained over 10,000 social service professionals in more than 200 different courses.

Promising the government's "strong support for all these efforts in capability development", Mr Tharman said that the Workforce Development Agency will be co-funding the SSI's career centre efforts to the tune of up to $28 million over three years.

Another $100 million has been committed over five years to the VWO and Charities Capability Fund.

While Mr Tharman described the current situation as "a tight labour market with many competing careers for young Singaporeans", he hoped that these measures will go some way in growing the country's pool of committed and trained social service professionals.