Understanding the shifting APAC employment market

The past two years have posed unprecedented challenges for employers and employees alike. The pandemic triggered a huge upheaval in our working lives and the aftershocks are still being felt. The impact is made more complex still for those international industries, such as maritime – an inherently global, interconnected sector.

The same forces that are disrupting and transforming the international maritime sector are also having a significant impact on our jobs markets. At its heart, shipping is a people business. In the face of the changes that all of us have experienced, it’s natural that we want to understand what has changed permanently and what might be a temporary blip.

With that in mind, we spoke to a number of figures working in the maritime sector in the Asia Pacific region to explore how the employment market has shifted for them. All are in senior management positions with a wide range of maritime organisations and are drawn from different countries within the region. No two experiences are the same, but there is a surprising amount of common ground in what they have seen in recent months.

Expat employees seeking to return home

One clear trend for many organisations is overseas employees either looking to return to their native country, or at least to relocate somewhere closer to home. In most cases this is due to a desire to be closer to family, after the prolonged travel and quarantine restrictions that have been in place in some APAC nations.

As one respondent explained: “We have had requests to return home, mostly due to COVID. We had colleagues who got stuck in India after visiting from Singapore or Australia. We have also had requests for employment contracts in Asia to be shortened.”

Anecdotally, this seems to have been a bigger issue for the European and American ex-pat, who have arguably found COVID restrictions more onerous and are more likely to be keen to return home – in some cases, relocated back to Europe or seeking early retirement, if available to them. By contrast, it was suggested that employees from China, The Philippines and India – often ex-seafarers – have not been as disrupted and are happy to remain put.

A number of those we spoke to recognise the personal challenges for employees in this situation; “We understand that there is a lot of frustration. Many of our Filipino employees have not seen their families in over two years.” However, they also acknowledged that this was the trade-off for what many employees said was Singapore’s strong performance in keeping COVID under control.

To counter this frustration, some of those organisations explained how they had retained employees by offering greater flexibility around remote working or relocation to other territories. For example, one respondent described that they held on to a valued employee by agreeing to their relocation from Singapore to Dubai.

The challenge of filling vacancies

The nature of the challenge faced by organisations who need to fill vacancies differs between territories. It was readily acknowledged by a number of those we spoke to that the Employment Passes are becoming harder to secure in Singapore. As a result, there is a move towards hiring locally, rather than from the international market.

When it comes to hiring locally, some pointed to the long-term challenge of upskilling local employees to fill senior positions, noting that this will take time - particularly for more specialist skillsets. However, it was also pointed out by others that local skill levels are rising and becoming more viable as an alternative to ex-pat candidates.

Others are thinking more creatively about how they can meet labour shortages, whether that is through remote working, building teams in other locations (such as India) or through internal restructures that are designed to deploy the personnel that they have retained.

One respondent remained particularly bullish on the continued appeal of the Hong Kong market: “Hong Kong is still attractive, and it is easy to support a visa. The big ship managers are still here and unlikely to go anywhere. We also see Singapore costs rising and catching up with Hong Kong, where we have a strong tax system, world class legal system and world class schooling.”

Long-term changes or a return to ‘normal’?

Views are mixed on whether this upheaval is just part of the cyclical nature of the jobs market, or if it reflects a more fundamental reorientation in the APAC region – particularly in the leading shipping hubs of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Some we spoke to felt that the more stringent conditions around the employment of ex-pat candidates will have a long-term impact. If they are limited in their ability to look internationally to replace departing employees, there will be a natural growth in the proportion of local employees. However, it was argued by one senior figure in Singapore that a level of ex-pat recruitment will always be needed to place some restraint over local salary levels, as well as to fill specialist needs - despite the growth in local expertise.

Interestingly, others have suggested that the peak of the ‘Great Resignation’ may have passed, with the majority of employees who wanted to move on now having done so. They anticipate a return to “a normal life by the summer” and are optimistic about their ability to hire and retain the talent that their organisations need.

What comes next?

The pandemic has shaken up the APAC employment markets, and the true long-term picture is yet to emerge. The considerable level of ex-pat movement has forced many organisations to look at how they can retain their valued employees, including remote and flexible working options, as well as how they can more effectively fill those vacancies locally, given greater restrictions on hiring foreign candidates. This includes the career development and training opportunities to help upskill their local team members.

In our follow-up article, coming soon, we’ll look in more detail at the implications of these trends and ask how APAC employers are making the longer-term adjustments to their HR policies and workplace practices to stay competitive.

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