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Mon, Jul 05, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Singapore starts to worry about its elderly workers


Wealthy, high-tech Singapore faces a serious and growing problem of structural unemployment as older and less-educated workers struggle to find work, says a senior union leader, who is also a government minister.

"The new jobs that are coming onto the market, coming with new investments entering Singapore, are not suitable for workers, the older workers .... who are less technically savvy," said Matthias Yao, deputy secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

Structural unemployment refers to those who can't find work because they don't have the skills. It affects most modern economies to some extent.

"There is going to be a lot of structural unemployment, and it is going to grow," Yao, who is also a senior minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office, said in an interview late last week.

Singapore has been more successful than many of its neighbors at promoting growth -- but Yao's warning reflects official concern over the possible emergence of a group of less-educated "have-nots."

Singapore's union movement has close ties to the long-ruling People's Action Party government. Unionists are sometimes ruling-party members of parliament. The NTUC head usually holds a Cabinet post.

The country's jobless rate for March, the latest figure available, was 4.5 percent -- a high level in a society accustomed to extremely low unemployment.

The long-term jobless rate -- those without work for at least 25 weeks -- was 1.5 percent. The indicator, a useful proxy for structural unemployment, has climbed fivefold from 0.3 percent a decade ago.

Yao, who spent several years as a political adviser to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, said older workers need to be retrained -- possibly in service jobs to meet the needs of highly trained, high-tech workers.

The government has been aggressively trying to develop high-tech industries such as biotechnology in an attempt to promote growth.

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