What happens when the next wave of Covid meets the Great Resignation?
Singapore is going to find out—and it will be ugly.
The Straits Times presents an optimistic picture of the labour market. Among other things, unemployment fell from 3 percent to 2.6 percent, retrenchments dropped from 26110 to 7820, and the Ministry of Manpower expects the labour market to continue to improve. However, the monthly resignation rate among PMETs has reached a seven-year high of 1.5 percent in the third quarter of 2021.
But these figures are from 2021, compared to 2020. Unemployment rates remain higher than pre-pandemic times.
TODAY tells a different story. NTUC LearningHub states that 1 in 10 workers are looking for a new job, while 65 percent of employers are hiring. Jobs portal Indeed claims that nearly 1 in 4 workers intend to quit their jobs within the first half of 2022, and 49% of workers are unsure if they will stay in their jobs in the next six months.
The discrepancy between their findings may lie in their user demographics. People tend to frequent job portals when they are thinking of getting a new job. If they are already content in their jobs, there is little reason for them to go job-hunting. In contrast, NTUC LearningHub is a training and education solutions provider. Employees seek out the courses they provide in preparation for assuming greater job responsibilities, usually when sponsored by their employers. There is little reason for them to think of quitting when their jobs are so secure that they can consider upskilling on the company dollar.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Individuals may sign up for NTUC LearningHub courses on their own. But even with co-funding and SkillsFuture credit subsidies, the high-value courses are still expensive. They’re not the kind of courses a person takes on their own unless they are confident that it will create new job opportunities.
And there is one more thing:
On 15 January, all unvaccinated workers were barred from the workplace. The Ministry of Manpower allows employers to terminate unvaccinated workers “as a last resort” without legal repercussions.
Workers facing sudden termination will start haunting job portals. Workers who get to stay in their jobs will enjoy the prospect of promotion through upskilling.
Per TODAY, nearly 8 in 10 employers have difficulties filling vacancies due to lack of suitable candidates, while 83 percent of employers are training or intend to train employees to meet business goals. The sectors facing the biggest labour shortages are modern services, manufacturing, and essential domestic services.
In other words: sectors that require physical presence at the workplace—either due to the demands of the job or workplace culture.
For all the talk of working from home, face time is still prized in Singapore society. Being physically present at the workplace is seen as more important than productivity, efficiency or innovation. I have read stories of employers who moved to terminate unvaccinated workers as a first resort, and to pressure them into taking the vaccine, so that they can return to the office—as opposed to trying to save their jobs through remote work arrangements. Even in the modern services field, where work can be done remotely, there is still the cultural expectation of face time in the office.
When there aren’t enough workers to go around, the workload increases for everyone across the board. The Straits Times reports that 1 in 2 workers have logged extra hours since the pandemic started, with 1 in 3 putting in at least two extra hours a day. Stress and heavy workload are among the key contributing factors to resignation. The increased burden stemming from a manpower crunch may encourage workers to resign, deepening the labour shortage.
Of course, there are some jobs that cannot be done remotely, such as healthcare. The healthcare sector is facing a manpower crunch, above and beyond regulations barring unvaccinated workers from the workplace, in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, on the cusp of what looks set to be an unprecedented surge of Covid infections. Hospitals are struggling to attract and retain staff. A proposal to ‘review and adjust‘ leave policies would likely lead to even more stress, more burnout, and more resignations.
Starting from 1 February, partially-unvaccinated workers will be shut out from the workplace. This will mean a second, smaller wave of terminations. Not only that, in Singapore, workers traditionally start seeking new jobs after receiving bonuses. This occurs in the middle of the year, the end of the year, and after 13 months of continual employment.
As Omicron takes hold in Singapore, cases are climbing. The Ministry of Health expects 15000 new cases a day. Spikes in transmissions tend to occur after weekends and public holidays.
And the nearest holiday is Chinese New Year, a time when families all across Singapore travel to meet their relatives, falling on 1 February.
As I mentioned previously, a perfect storm is coming. Waves of resignations and terminations will meet with waves of new infections, and combine to create a vicious spiral.
The unvaccinated are not going to land jobs in sectors that require physical presence at the workplace. This aggravates the existing labour shortage. Employers will try to attract new recruits by offering higher salaries—and the costs will be passed on to the customers. At a societal level, this will increase prices across the board. As Omicron spreads, workers will have to take medical leave, increasing the burden on their colleagues, which will further encourage them to find other jobs. An over-extended and burnt-out healthcare sector will be less effective at dealing with the pandemic, along with other non-Covid health issues, which is likely to prolong the existing crisis.
2022 is set to be a turbulent year for everyone, and we’re barely at the end of January. We’re likely to face severe and long-lasting socio-economic disruptions. The Monetary Authority of Singapore forecasts core inflation of 2 – 3% and headline inflation from 2.5 – 3.5%, and is tightening monetary policy in response.
The unvaccinated are going to bear the brunt of it.
If this is you, what can you do about it?
Things Can Always Get Worse
In such times, there is little downside to being a pessimist. Remember that things can always get worse, so you must plan for the worst case scenario.
On 24 January, Israel recorded 83646 new cases—or 0.889% of its population. Israel became no. 1 in the world for daily new Covid cases per capita, with government figures showing 0.6% of the population testing positive every day.
No two countries are exactly alike. It’s not likely for Singapore to see similar infection rates with Israel, especially with different climates, population densities, vaccination takeup rates, and vaccine passport policies. Nonetheless, should Omicron become dominant in Singapore, we shouldn’t be shocked if we approach Israeli levels of infection. Though the Ministry of Health estimates 15000 cases a day, we should brace ourselves for 20000 or even 25000 new cases a day. Or more.
Going by past policies, the government might further tighten restrictions should this happen. Among other things, we could see, once again, a return to working from home as the norm, and an end to all indoor dining. We should also expect much harsher penalties for the unvaccinated to compel them to get the vaccine, and increasing pressure for the doubly-vaccinated to get the third shot.
In other words, tomorrow’s vaccinated will be treated like today’s unvaccinated—except that now there are fewer workers to go around to take up the workload, especially in the workplace.
Institutions estimate that Omicron takes 4 to 6 weeks to dominate a region at the low end, and 6 to 8 weeks at the high end. South Africa saw the Omicron wave flatten in 6 weeks. Singapore’s first Omicron cases arrived in early December, with community transmissions occurring in the third week of December. Going by these estimates, we’ll see a spike after Chinese New Year, then a decline in late March to early April.
But don’t hope for Covid to be over by then. A more realistic timeline would be mid-2022, when higher temperatures and lower rainfall reduce the transmissibility of the virus.
The economic impact is going to remain. It’s unclear yet just how much impact the MAS’ policies will affect inflation. Nonetheless, we must be prepared for rising prices for essentials across the board. It is already occurring in supermarkets, bakeries, and shopping malls. As salaries rise and manpower crunches persist, costs may further increase.
Are you ready?
Riding out the Storm
2022 is set to be a turbulent year. But where there are problems, there are opportunities. The question is how you find these opportunities and make the most of them.
Health and Wellness
In a time when doctors and nurses are overworked, when the hospitals are bracing for a surge in Covid cases, falling ill is the last thing anyone should do. You must prioritize your health. By this I mean holistic health: health of the body, the psyche and the spirit.
Weight gain is the most pervasive health issue in the past 2 years. Nearly one-third of Singaporeans have gained weight during the pandemic, and a doctor estimates 1 in 5 of children he saw were overweight.
Obesity increases your chances of catching Covid, developing severe symptoms, and dying from Covid. If you’re overweight, the simplest and most effective way to protect yourself is to lose weight.
With so many people working extra hours, either in the office or at home, this leads to a host of health issues, both physical and psychological.
The elderly are especially vulnerable. Ever since the pandemic begun, they have limited opportunities to socialize with their friends and family, more so since they do not normally use digital tools and electronics. If you know of any at-risk elderly in your area, keep an eye on them.
Ask yourself these questions:
- How much do I care about my health? Who will be affected the most if I fall ill?
- Have I consciously addressed health issues or have I ignored them? If the latter, why? How will these health issues get worse and affect my life? Why do I want to inflict this on myself and those around me?
- How do I make time to exercise and get sunlight and fresh air?
- What does ‘healthy’ mean to me? How do I achieve and sustain it? What kind of motivation do I need to get there?
- Am I spending too much time at work and too little quality time with loved ones? If so, how can I rebalance them?
- Am I facing chronic stress? If so, how do I reduce it?
- What is the state of my psychological health? How can I remain calm and stable in these times?
- Do I have any special health knowledge, products or services? If so, how can I use them to help everyone around me?
The Singapore Association for Mental Health offers resources to assist people with overcoming life challenges and developing psychological resilience.
Plan for inflation of at least 3.5 percent in 2022. That means you must grow your income by at least 10 to 20 percent to remain comfortable.
If you’re a salaried worker, the easiest way to do this is to ask for a raise or a promotion. Naturally, you have to justify this, so be prepared to offer more value to your employer. Alternatively, you can hop over to an employer that offers better terms. Ask yourself how you can do this, then execute.
If you’re scrambling for a job, look at the sectors that are bleeding staff. If that’s out of the question, look at secondary industries that support those sectors. Alternatively, identify opportunities to make up for the ongoing brain drain through remote work positions. With employers eager to attract replacement staff, you’re in a better position to negotiate with bosses.
If you’re an entrepreneur, think about two things: establishing a steady stream of income, and market segmentation. Volatility in turbulent times is a recipe for disaster. By having a steady income, in the form of regular clients, subscription services and the like, you can mitigate economic downturn. Through market segmentation, you can differentiate your clientele, determine who is most receptive to your offers, and craft your pricing and marketing strategies.
Some entrepreneurs prefer selling high-volume low-ticket items. The key to this is automation. You cannot possibly oversee every single sale. Instead, make use of tools and software to automate the process as much as you can, preserving time and energy for higher-order work. Go through your business processes and see how you can do this.
Other entrepreneurs favour high-ticket low-volume. Focus on crafting an irresistible pitch. Show your clients that they will make a huge return on investment for the price you are asking for your product. Then secure testimonials from them so you can continue to attract more clients. Learn how to do all this.
Suppose you lost your job recently and decided to start a business. You need to understand that success and failure is entirely on you. You need to make all the decisions and bear all the risks. Here are three things you can do:
Find a niche. Identify the intersection of your talent stack and market demand, then address it relentlessly. Never underestimate the power of marketing: you may offer the best product or service in the market, but it’s nothing if nobody knows you exist. Track your time and expenses carefully, and be prepared to shift your strategy if you feel things aren’t working out. Above all, do not expand your business scope until you are ready to absorb the increased cost. Do not get greedy. Focus on survival and sustainable growth.
Pursue a side gig. Whatever talent you have, monetize it. This is no longer an option if you’re shut out from conventional society. Ideally you should pursue a side gig that offers outsized value for the time and energy you spend on it—that way, you can spiral it into a full-time position if the situation calls for it.
Cut unnecessary expenses. Circumstances may prevent you from growing income. If so, you must focus on cutting costs. Everything that you do not need has to go. Unused gym memberships, subscriptions for services and products you hardly use, expensive take-aways, all unnecessary expenses have to go. But wherever possible, focus on growing income. You will inevitably have costs that you cannot cut, such as utilities and groceries. This is especially important if you are an entrepreneur, because there are recurring baseline costs for essential business products and services whether or not you turn a profit.
Ask yourself these questions:
- How much money do I need to survive?
- How much savings do I have? If I do not have enough for six months, what can I do to increase them?
- If I lose my primary income stream now, what other options do I have? If I don’t have any, what can I do to create secondary streams of income?
- Where do my skills, talents and experience lie? What do people around me need? How can I help them, and what is a fair value for my services?
- How can I further grow income without undermining my health? Failing that, what can I do to reduce costs?
I am not a financial advisor, nor do I play one on TV. This is not financial advice, merely my observations and opinions. With this out of the way, I think 2022 will be a poor time for speculative investments.
The perfect storm I’ve described above is merely the small picture. The big picture will encompass overseas developments. This includes: inflation in America, supply chain crises, poor weather in agricultural areas, regulatory developments, potential for armed conflict in Eastern Europe and breakdown in civil order in the West, and so much more.
In such turbulent times, speculative plays are likely to fail spectacularly. More so for the inexperienced and for those whose sole strategy consists of aping into the latest hot coin.
At the same time, if you do not beat inflation, you are losing money.
Now is either a terrible time to enter the cryptocurrency market, or the right time, depending on your time frame. The recent crypto market crash created opportunities to buy the dips. But we are also seeing regulatory developments, scams and uncertainty. If you choose to enter now, have a plan for two scenarios: if the market goes up, and if the market goes down. Should the market recover and skyrocket, you must take major profits. Given the current political and economic environment, such a scenario would quickly lead to a dramatic crash, as people seek to protect their profits against increasing uncertainty.
Low-risk passive income options are probably a good idea. This means farming and staking in crypto, blue chip stocks in the stock market, and vending machines and parking lots in the real world. Whatever you choose, do your research, have a plan and work the plan.
Here are questions you need to ask:
- What is my investment strategy? What is my goal? Will it beat inflation?
- Am I currently overexposed, or underexposed? (If you’re afraid that your portfolio will crash, you’re probably overexposed.)
- What is my timeframe? How does this affect my investment strategy?
- What is the market forecast for the assets I’m invested in? Will they stay strong through the turbulent times, or will they crash?
- What are my profit targets? What do I do if the market turns against me?
- What do I do with my profits? Put it in a bank? Reinvest it elsewhere? Park it in a safer / more volatile asset class? What are the risks and rewards of these approaches?
- How do I ensure my continued survival in the market?
Invest In Yourself
This is the most important investment you can ever make.
If you do not grow, you are stagnant, and when you stagnant, you will be left behind. To grow, you have to learn new skills and adapt to life changes.
To make money, identify your talent stack and reinforce it. Grow the skills and aspects that make you stand out in the market—and offer value to whoever you need to attract. Either do the work now or be lost among a crowd of people hungrier and more dedicated than you.
If you’re unvaccinated, you must do this. You are already significantly disadvantaged in the job market. No one is going to help you. You must create opportunities for yourself, and the way to do this is to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to identify these opportunities and exploit them.
This means you must set aside time, energy and money for continued personal investment. Set aside at least 10% of your income for self-development, so that you can continue to grow in all fields—including income.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What kind of lifestyle do I want? What do I need to make it possible?
- What is my talent stack? What do people need? How do I strengthen my talent stack to better meet their needs?
- What are my strengths? How do I use them to stand out?
- What are my weaknesses? How do I compensate for them?
- How is the world changing? What do I need to know to adapt to these changes?
Be Like Water
The world is ever-changing, and extremely complex. No one man can hope to predict everything correctly. Black swan events may occur, forcing a re-evaluation of your strategy.
You must remain adaptable and antifragile. Any loss becomes an opportunity for growth, any change is an opportunity for transformation.
Do not be attached to your plan, your strategy, or your ideal outcome. Life rarely plays out exactly the way you hope it will. Do not cling to the hope that life will return to normal, that the pandemic will end, that the economy will improve. Should these events come to pass, do not stay attached to the way things were before, nor hope that things can only improve from here.
See things exactly as they are. Not what you or others hope they will be, but as they are, without fear, prejudice, preconceptions or delusions. With clear vision, shape yourself to the situation. Do not try to impose yourself on it, do not try to force your preferred method on the situation, do not try to destroy obstacles through sheer force of will, but simply choose the best approach for the situation.
Water flows wherever it goes. When in motion, it becomes any vessel it is poured into, it follows the landscape, it becomes solid or liquid or gas when the temperature changes. When still, it perfectly reflects everything around it. It absorbs the essence of everything that falls into it, yet can be easily separated from them. It does all this effortlessly, without defying the laws of nature and without imposing itself on things. It just is.
When the waves combine, become like water, and the turbulence will not touch you.