Bosses are all too aware that they have to make do with fewer workers but they still want more help to make the adjustment, according to a new committee set up to work among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

The SME Workgroup, a government-led body comprising business leaders, government agencies and grassroots advisers, started gathering feedback from employers earlier this month. 

Its aim is to find ways to help firms through this period of economic restructuring, such as by refining existing policies and assistance schemes.

 At a dialogue on Thursday night with about 250 SME bosses, Ms Jessica Tan, an MP for East Coast GRC, found that manpower constraints are still their top concern. But while SMEs in past years have argued for looser labour policies, they now want more help boosting productivity instead, she noted.

For example, several participants at the session suggested that the eligibility criteria of government assistance schemes be relaxed. A company that wants to make a claim under the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) scheme has to have at least three local workers, but many local businesses have just one or two staff.

The PIC scheme gives tax deductions or cash payouts to firms if they take steps to boost productivity, such as buying machinery or training staff

"So it's a struggle on both ends - here I am trying to hire workers but I can't find locals, and at the same time, with that criteria... I can't apply for the scheme," noted Ms Tan. "We should look into making some refinements to these qualifying criteria so that businesses can proceed to invest and make the right decisions for improving their work processes."

Dr Lee Bee Wah, an MP for Nee Soon GRC, said she heard similar feedback yesterday when visiting retailers in Khatib Central. 

There were also calls to extend the PIC scheme beyond 2015. 

Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Yeo Guat Kwang, who held a dialogue on Oct 9 and a walkabout in Ang Mo Kio Central yesterday, said the formation of the SME Workgroup makes it easier to provide immediate help to firms, as his outreach sessions are now attended by officers from various government agencies too. 

"Now, straightaway after I convince the businessman that he should tap a scheme to raise productivity and reduce his reliance on labour, I can immediately introduce him to someone from the SME Centre and I know there will be follow-through," he noted. 

Ms Catherine Koh, the chairwoman of the Tampines SME Association, attended Ms Tan's dialogue on Thursday and found it a good avenue to air the grievances of her member firms. 

Businessman Steven Mong, who attended the same session, said he hopes the feedback will be used to effect real change. 

"I've attended such sessions before and until now businesses are still facing the same problem of manpower shortage yet the responses are the same," he said.