Tapping S'pore's hidden talent pool
SINGAPORE employers bemoaning the lack of qualified and experienced local workers need to look a little closer to home or - more rather - inside the home.
I am talking about the large number of women here who gain qualifications and valuable experience, then leave the workplace on a more or less permanent basis. This particular demographic group - women over the age of 30 - has emerged as a potentially untapped resource here.
Efficiently utilising labour resources is an especially pressing issue for Singapore right now, not just because of its ageing population, but also because of the recent mandated changes to labour policy.
Indeed, it is predicted that, by 2050, Singapore will be among the top 10 countries in the world in terms of the proportion of the population aged over 60.
In the face of such an eventuality as well as current government strategies to reduce dependency on foreign labour, the many women who are not employed in the formal workplace could provide a valuable, under-utilised source of labour, one that could help plug the predicted manpower gap.
Employers who put insightful policies in place now to attract these workers are likely to be the best placed when the expected labour crunch comes - as it inevitably will.
MINDING THE GENDER GAP
CULTURAL expectations, family responsibilities and the general lack of flexible part-time work - these factors play a key role in why women have a lower labour force participation rate (LFPR) here than men do, based on findings by researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
However, the education levels of men and women are very similar and, until the age of 29, workforce participation is roughly equal. Indeed, at this stage, many women actually out-rank and out-earn their male peers, who have to first undergo two years of national service.
From age 30 onwards, the story is very different.
One cannot help but think that it might have something to do with the gender wage gap. If you knew, for instance, that you earned up to 42 per cent less than the colleague sitting across from you, you would probably think twice about the value of working too.
This is the stark reality for many female workers in Singapore, particularly blue-collar workers such as plant and machine operators. Women in professional, clerical support and service and sales roles have it slightly better at a younger age. However, in older age groups, women earn less than men across all occupational categories.
MAKING DOLLARS AND SENSE
IT IS not just the gender pay gap that could be encouraging women to leave formal work forever. Social factors such as unsupportive workplace environments, discrimination in hiring and promotion and traditional expectations all play a part in preventing Singapore women from continuing to work as they grow older.
Still, entrenched as such factors might be, corporate leadership can have an important role in slowly but surely improving conditions for women across all age groups.
By staying in or returning to the workplace, mature women can attain financial self-sufficiency, which will also ease the burden on both families and the state.
Far from being merely an issue of fairness, the contribution of mature women in the workplace is of strategic importance to business leaders.
GAINING FROM A WOMAN'S TOUCH
APART from filling the labour gap, studies also show that mature women are scored higher than their male counterparts in terms of leadership effectiveness factors such as honesty, innovation and initiative, by peers, bosses and others - all qualities that most organisations are eager to encourage in their workers.
Other research has found that organisations which are ahead of their peers in breaking the glass ceiling do better in the stock market and see better returns, especially in tough conditions.
In other words, there is a very real business case for encouraging women in Singapore to stay in the workplace or return to work, but this needs to be on their terms too.
The Government has recognised the need to increase flexibility in workplace environments to adapt to changing manpower needs. Through schemes such as the Integrated Manpower Programme (IMP), it has also taken the first steps towards engaging women in the workplace and encouraging those who have dropped out of the workforce to go back.
Even so, there is much employers can do to attract women workers back to the fold, in particular by promoting flexible working arrangements, reaching out to potential entrants, training those keen to return to work and providing support for childcare.
Studies show that arrangements designed to promote work-life balance might also increase job satisfaction, reduce voluntary turnover and raise productivity levels.
Mature women show a strong preference for part-time work, which gives them the flexibility to meet both work and family needs.
Corporate leaders are perfectly positioned to implement flexible work policies that encourage mature women (and others who might be unable to commit to full-time office hours) to stay in or return to the workplace.
There is a pool of talent out there, and smart employers in Singapore need to look closely at any measures which could effectively reduce the current barriers that keep women at home.
The writer is an associate professor in the Department of Management and Organisation at NUS Business School. A version of this article will be published on the school's Think Business portal (thinkbusiness.nus.edu).