The expanding social service sector is a bright spot in a tepid labour market where some sectors are shrinking and employers are cautious about hiring.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday said job seekers can expect some 3,000 job openings over the next two years in a sector that now employs 13,000 workers.

And the jobs are not just for social workers, who currently account for only 7 per cent of the social service workforce.

Said Mr Tan: "In order to encourage more people to join the sector, we must first correct the misperception that it comprises only volunteers, or that those with a social work degree should apply. This is far from reality."

He was speaking at the official opening of the Social Service Institute's new premises at Central Plaza in Tiong Bahru. The institute, previously located at Somerset, is the main training centre for the sector.

In announcing the manpower projections for the sector, Mr Tan said that besides psychologists, counsellors and occupational and speech therapists, the sector also needs to fill corporate roles - such as accountants, marketers, fund-raisers and IT support managers.

More support and disability services will be needed because of the greying population. And as singlehood and divorce rates rise, care is also often outsourced.

Mr Abhimanyau Pal, executive director of SPD, a key organisation for those with disabilities, said: "Given the current job market and economy, this is a window of opportunity for job seekers, but the challenge will be to keep them in the sector.

"Many young people come in full of passion but some leave due to a mismatch of expectations."

Workers in the sector have previously complained of low pay and a lack of career progression.

This year, the recommended salary increment for workers in the sector is 3.5 per cent. The figure is benchmarked against similar increases in the general market, according to compensation experts the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) consulted.

The pay guidelines have been published online since 2015 and more than 70 per cent of organisations have accepted them.

The starting pay of social service professionals has also gone up over the years (see related report).

A clear roadmap for career progression has also been drawn up so that workers know what skill sets are needed for the positions they are interested in and how much they can expect to be paid.

Meanwhile, 571 people applied for 40 openings in the Professional Conversion Programme for social workers this year. The scheme trains mid-career hires.

Separately, 347 students applied for 54 social service scholarships and awards last year.

NCSS deputy chief executive Fermin Diez said charities will remain selective about the type of people they deem suitable to serve others in the "helping profession".

For instance, charities look out for those who are passionate, resilient and have compassion and integrity.

But no hiring tool can measure these values adequately, said Mr Diez. So, NCSS has worked with two university professors to develop a psychometric tool specific for the sector to help charities attract the right staff.

Said Mr Diez: "This sector is for those who want to be agents of change. Everyone here today has a true sense of purpose."

* This article first appeared in The Straits Times on 13 April 2017"