JOB figures for the January-March quarter confirm earlier estimates showing that the labour market has softened, with the unemployment rate creeping up to 2.1 per cent from 2 per cent.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM), which released the latest numbers yesterday, said that it expects an improved job outlook for the current quarter after the deterioration in the previous two quarters, and employers are likely to boost headcounts in anticipation of better business conditions ahead.

"In manufacturing and services, a net weighted balance of 8 per cent and 9 per cent of firms respectively expect to increase employment in the second quarter of 2012, in contrast to a net weighted balance of 2 per cent and 4 per cent that expect to reduce employment in the first quarter of 2012," MOM said in its report.

Concurring, Kit Wei Zheng, an economist at Citigroup, noted that the latest survey by recruitment firm Manpower showed an uptick in the net employment outlook.

Barclays Capital's Leong Wai Ho reckons the pipeline of foreign direct investments is still strong and should support more job creation.

MOM's figures also pointed to a dip in the number of layoffs, which rose in the previous quarter. Some 2,600 workers were made redundant in the first quarter, down from 3,250 in the last quarter of 2011.

The downward trend is likely to continue.

"Our impending layoffs in the unionised sector appear optimistic with less than 1,000 expected this year," said Cham Hui Fong, assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress. "Most companies are experiencing healthy volume of production."

Still, MOM said that employers are not as upbeat as they were this time last year, when the net weighted balance wanting to hire more staff was 11 per cent for manufacturing and 18 per cent for services.

Writing on his blog, Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin didn't sound cheerful when he commented that the latest job numbers reflected "the impact of the subdued global economic outlook on the unemployment landscape".

He was especially concerned about the rising long-term unemployment for older resident workers - those in the 30-39 and 40 & over age groups.

Mr Tan noted that almost a quarter of unemployed residents in March were looking for work for at least 25 weeks, up from 22 per cent a year ago.

"This group of job-seekers remains unemployed and is still unable to secure a new job after an extended period of time, thus skills obsolescence could potentially set in," he said.

There are enough jobs to go round for resident workers seeking employment - even when jobs created in the first quarter fell from a seasonal high increase of 37,600 in the previous quarter to 27,200 (down 200 from earlier estimates), say private-sector economists.

Job openings fell from 120 for every 100 job-seekers in December to 105 for every 100 job seekers in March. But Chua Hak Bin, an economist at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, said that employers will still be crying out for more foreign workers to help fill vacancies.

Private-sector economists, who had expected the unemployment rate to stay unchanged in May, when preliminary job figures were released, are more positive this time around. They don't see the uptick in unemployment pointing to something dreadful ahead.

Mr Leong dismissed the slightly higher 2.1 per cent jobless rate as "immaterial", pointing out that the average jobless rate in the past five years was 2.5 per cent.

If anything, he said that the softer job market helps to relieve cost pressures on companies, a view that was echoed by the Minister of State.

MOM's figures also showed that labour productivity fell 2.2 per cent in the first quarter, compared with a year ago, after dipping 0.5 per cent in the previous quarter.

Nominal monthly earnings rose 0.9 per cent, against 4 per cent previously, but after factoring in inflation, real average monthly earnings fell 3.9 per cent, extending the 1.4 per cent decline in the fourth quarter of 2011.