Despite continued headcount freezes and reductions, job vacancies and job placements at PageGroup have been rising steadily month on month since Q3 last year.

The new Page Personnel Talent Trends 21 report, which compiled the responses of over 5,500 businesses and 21,000 employees across APAC, revealed that while some employers were choosing to consolidate to protect the shape of their business in the short-term, many remain focused on attracting talented people to allow for future growth.

During an interview with BBC Asia Business Report, Sharmini Wainwright, Senior Managing Director at PageGroup said that optimism was returning to the region, with more than 42% of surveyed companies looking to increase their headcount in 2021.

“Mainland China saw the deepest cut in terms of the active number of jobs we were working on in the professional space. Interestingly, when we fast-forward a couple of months to the end of [last] year, Mainland China is now in the strongest position – and is the sharpest recovery we have seen,” Wainwright revealed.

“The recovery phase typically takes between 3-5 years but there is almost a nice climb that [businesses] are able to achieve every year.

“We focus on the professional space in terms of the labour market and what we expect is a new year’s turn, which means a lot of organisations naturally start to move towards optimism. Also, many of them have been very tight in the amount of resources that they have had – so one individual covering roles for other individuals, and that can only last for so long.”

Sharmini Wainwright, Senior Managing Director at PageGroup interviewed on BBC Asia Business Report.

Anthony Thompson, Regional Managing Director, Asia Pacific at PageGroup, added that businesses across APAC were adapting their recruitment plans during the pandemic, rather than waiting it out and potentially missing out on key talent.

As a result of this strategy, hiring levels are picking up again.

“A reduced rate of hiring does not necessarily mean that businesses are shutting their doors to qualified talent altogether. At no point in 2020 did we see that,” Thompson explained.

“We saw very positive trends upward from Q2 to Q3, and Q4 versus Q3.

“We are not back to levels that we would consider to be ‘normal’ but it is getting closer and closer each month – operating at 85% to 90% in most cases.”

Thompson said that in some larger markets, such as Japan and China, PageGroup experienced growth in hiring activities toward the end of 2020, compared to 2019, which was highly encouraging.

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“We expect the positive trends to gradually continue across the region as a whole,” he added.

“While it is clear that the impact of COVID-19 is not disappearing imminently, most companies in most markets have adapted. And rather than wait for the situation to be completely resolved, they have been making hiring decisions and executing business plans for the future.”

He said optimism certainly exists for APAC’s job market this year, as 42% of surveyed businesses revealed they were already looking to increase headcount.

Hiring trends in Singapore

When it came to Singaporean companies, Talent Trends 2021 found 40% were looking to increase headcount in 2021. This comes as several reports and economic data confirm that Singapore is bouncing back strongly and outperforming expectations. Singapore was especially hard hit in Q2 of 2020. The city-state suffered a double-digit year-on-year slump of 13.4% at the time due to its circuit breaker measures and the global lockdown period. While GDP growth continued to shrink in the second half of 2020, the pace of contraction moderated significantly since then. By the end of 2020, the full-year contraction stood at 5.4% — a much milder amount than previous estimations.

Looking ahead, experts are already expecting Singapore to bounce back up to 4–6% before normalising to around 3% in 2022. Singapore’s Construction and Services sectors, too, will likely revert to positive on-year growth, according to a report on Channel NewsAsia. Furthermore, with the government already rolling out vaccines to its citizens and the goal of vaccinating the whole country by Q3 2021, this could boost business and consumer confidence across the rest of the year.

In the recent Budget 2021 announcement, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, said that that as Singapore’s economy reopens, the focus of Budget 2021 will shift "from containment to restructuring”, but there will be targeted support for the hardest-hit sectors as the global battle against COVID-19 is far from over.

“As a small, open economy, Singapore’s economic recovery is contingent on how the global situation plays out,” he said. “Not everything is within our control. We need to adapt nimbly to the wide range of possible outcomes," he said. "I am confident that we, as Singaporeans, can once again summon our resolve to tackle the challenges and emerge stronger from this unprecedented crisis."

The Talent Trends 21 report provides insights into what businesses and employees experienced in 2020, practical learnings and what is expected in 2021 including salary expectations. Click the image below to download the full report.

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