Is Singapore's recovery a joyless one?

SOME observers have coined a new term for the odd trajectory of the economic upswing in the United States: a 'joyless recovery'.

The characteristic pattern? Strong economic numbers, productivity growth and job creation, but coupled with a stagnation or decline in real income and employment quality. By one account, real income in the US declined by 3.4 per cent during a period where productivity increased by 12 per cent.

Fingers have been pointed variously at outsourcing, the underlying fragility of the recovery, even fat cat employers who have accrued the benefits of US President George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, but have not passed down renewed earnings to workers.

Matters seem decidedly more rosy in Singapore, which posted a sizzling 12.5 per cent growth in the second quarter of this year. This corresponded with an increase of 10,400 jobs in the same period, although the overall unemployment rate still hovers around 4.5 per cent.

It remains to be seen whether the 11 per cent growth in productivity reported by the Ministry of Trade and Industry for the quarter translates into wage increases, but initial signs are promising. With things truly looking up after several difficult years, it's unlikely that a joyless recovery will happen here.

On the other hand, not everyone is smiling. A friend's small to medium-sized enterprise, which implemented wage cuts and withheld the 13th month bonus to stay afloat and save jobs last year, has yet to restore pay, even though business has picked up.

Another who picked up a distance degree during the lean years, has yet to find a job to match her new qualifications. And the recently reported 3 per cent staffing cuts in the civil service must surely have made some public officers feel queasy.

It's not even a question of employers pocketing the profits. Some small companies barely scraped through the recent crises and are still in the vulnerable recovery process, with a backlog of debt to answer for.

Others are still cautious about uncertain business prospects. Firms slashed their asking price in order to compete during the downturn and then trimmed labour costs to keep up - either by cutting staff and wages, or passing work out to cheaper shops elsewhere. This helped to account for the 10 per cent fall in labour costs in the second quarter of this year.

But clients have come to expect the new, lower price structure as a given and are ready to look elsewhere if companies can't oblige. Boutique agencies accustomed to charging premium rates for specialised work may find themselves competing at volume prices. Accustomed to having more work done by fewer or cheaper staff and for the same price, bosses are wary of splurging on more manpower than is necessary at any given time.

No doubt there are some cases of abuse. One horror story: An expectant mother was retrenched at the end of a major project only to be offered work a week later on much reduced freelance terms.

Still, the prevalence of freelancing and fluid, project-based contracts in the IT and creative sectors has helped cushion these talent-driven service industries against the seasonal and economic variations to which they are prone.

The uncertainty cuts both ways. Skilled freelancers lose the stability of fixed employment but broaden the market for their skills beyond the scope of a single company. A designer acquaintance claims to make much more as a free agent than as a full-time employee in a sluggish agency and she even gets to handpick the work she does.

At a recent focus group discussion, the suggestion of a minimum wage to attract talent to the creative industry was tabled - and roundly rejected by employers and creatives alike. Those present were stridently confident that the best talent would attract commensurate reward. Why second-guess market forces all of a sudden, even if we are a little short of people?

The downturn may well have released a pool of capable individuals from less productive organisations into the larger marketplace. It's no bad thing: For market forces to work, talent has to be mobile enough to move to where it's most needed and valued.

Naturally, people stay in their jobs for many reasons other than the pay cheque, not least a positive work culture and job satisfaction. But in a business environment where companies can't afford to be too sentimental about manpower, skilled employees who are able should see themselves as being equally free to gravitate towards the best deal they can. No one should be content to be the only joyless ones in a genuine recovery.