Managing the festive period labour crunch

Festive season is here again and the service sector faces a perennial problem - the talent crunch. Higher wages haven't solved the problem, so what steps should HR take to effectively manage staff strength over the holiday season?

Despite offering higher wages to lure Singaporeans into the service sector, employers still face a manpower squeeze that is especially painful over the festive period.

Sharon Tan, HR Manager, Brotzeit, pins the reasons down to the service sector having long shift working hours, and bigger shifts during weekends and on public holidays. “Offering higher wages does not really tackle that situation,” she says.

The long hours and physical working environment are indeed factors that most employees would not be actively seeking out during the festive season, says Grace Yang, HR Manager, Suntec Singapore.

“Most workers hope their year-end will see a slowing down of business and activities for one and all,” Yang explains. “Interestingly, where monetary rewards and other perks were successful as carrots to charm temporary staff during other times of the year, they do not seem to work during the festive season when the mood is all about spending time with loved ones and taking a step back to watch a new year unfold.”

This is true even of the temporary staff that Suntec Singapore hires, including students who are having their year-end holiday break from school. “This group tends to be more energetic and vibrant, but even then the mood distinction between the year-end break and other school breaks is distinct,” says Yang.

While vacation jobs were popular with students in the past, students these days have become more protected by their parents, says Josh Goh, Assistant Director – Corporate Services, The GMP Group.

“Because of affluence, these doting parents are not releasing their children to work during their school vacations,” he explains. “They prefer to go on holidays with their children or let them attend enrichment classes instead.”

Still, higher wages is just one of the factors people consider when looking at employment. Working conditions, including hours, is another. The target group to plug the gap in manpower consists of housewives, retirees and students. These types of workers typically prefer flexible schedules over rigidity. Unless deliberate efforts are taken to make creative changes to include them, the crunch will continue to be felt.
Crunch time
In July last year, the Singapore Government tightened foreign labour quotas in several industries, including the service sector. Firms are now allowed to have foreign workers fill up only 45% of positions, down from 50% previously. These increasingly stringent regulations on the hiring of foreign labour are a key contributing factor in the manpower crunch.

“The service sector has always been constantly dependent on foreign labour as a source of manpower. The stringent regulations do contribute as a factor towards the manpower crunch as employers now have a smaller pool of labour to work with,” says Tan.

“Employers like Brotzeit will have to enhance their talent attraction and retention packages to attract Singaporeans, as well as change their perspectives of the service sector,” she adds.

While it is true that many companies may find it tough to cope without easy access to foreign manpower, many might see this situation as a blessing in disguise and re-evaluate operations, streamline processes, and reduce their reliance on manpower, says Goh.

“To retain current workers, organisations should also increase the value of their workers,” he explains. “Giving more recognition will even allow them to attract outside talent. This is a good time to revamp the image of the service industry, to one where there is a viable career progression path.”
Managing the crunch
Ideally, HR and operations should work hand-in-hand to understand each other’s constraints and work toward win-win situations. “Often, operations are busy fire-fighting in the frontline and are hard-pressed for staff,” says Goh. “And as the operations team has limited HR knowledge, they may not have the capability or time to redesign work flows to accommodate the part-timers’ requirements. Hence, the shortage of manpower persists.”

If the operations team can be equipped with some HR knowledge on best practices, then they could fine-tune their work arrangements to ease their own labour shortages, Goh adds. HR and operations could also work together to slay the manpower crunch beast by reducing reliance on manpower through productivity increasing workplace innovations.

A common complaint from part-timers is that they are often treated as second-class employees in their organisations. “Increasing the recognition part-timers receive, including sharing of rewards, so that they feel part of the organisation, is also a sure way to gain staff loyalty,” Goh explains. “Continually engaging former part-timers and maintaining them as a pool of ready hires for future needs is ideal and a mind-shift from the current out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality.”

To manage the labour crunch during the festive period, Brotzeit projects its labour needs early, hiring more part-timers and full-timers as needed, and providing all staff with the relevant training to be proficient for the coming busy schedule.

“We believe in sharing with our employees,” says Tan. “For example, our part-timers are given the same training as our full-timers. They are also rewarded with the same incentive schemes.”

Furthermore, the HR and operations teams need to be more creative in designing part-timers’ compensation. “Instead of offering a flat rate to all part-timers, they could explore the possibility of rewarding the more committed part-timers with higher hourly wages and better incentives,” says Goh.

More often than not, part-timers do not receive continuous training from their employer. This is understandable, especially as part-timers are often engaged on a contingency basis. “However, employers may consider starting to look at providing training to their dedicated part-timers,” says Goh.

Over its 18 year history, Suntec Singapore has come a long way in terms of mastering and planning its manpower effectively and efficiently during the festive season.

“We have come up with multiple measures to avoid the temporary staff crunch, such as advance schedule planning of our events and activities (most of our events are booked at least a year in advance). This keeps our temporary staff involved and committed to providing extra help over a longer period,” Yang explains.

The popular venue for meetings, conventions and exhibitions has also established good working relationships with existing employees, temporary help, business partners, and contractors who are keen to step in when there is a need for additional labour.

 “We also believe that our working environment is a positive one and that our remuneration is competitive and timely – something that our temporary staff appreciate,” says Yang. “Such initiatives have been tremendously helpful in managing labour issues more effectively during year-end.”

Given that the festive season is also the busiest time of year for Courts Asia, the furniture and electronic goods retailer plans ahead and engages part-timers, who undergo comprehensive service training. Courts Asia has also implemented innovative operating systems and technology solutions to improve productivity and enhance the customer experience.

“For example, we provide our sales staff with tablets, so that they can more effectively and efficiently serve our customers,” Kiran Kaur, Chief Talent Officer, Courts Asia, explains. “Our integrated multi-channel offerings – in-store and online – also allow us to streamline productivity to serve our customers better.”
Future of festive work
HR efforts to manage the festive talent crunch seem to be paying off. “They say the proof is in the pudding, and in our case, it is in the numbers,” says Kaur. “In 2013, our employee satisfaction score was 96%, and at 2.8%, our attrition rate was lower than the industry average of 4.6%.”

Brotzeit, on the other hand, has seen a growing pool of regular part-timers. “They are happy that they are provided with training to be equipped with the necessary skills, knowledge and ability for the job,” says Tan. “These part-timers are a group of energetic and passionate individuals who want to experience working in the service sector.”

Suntec Singapore is also seeing more and more returning temporary staff coming back to work part-time during the festive season, as well as throughout other high-volume periods in the year. “Their commitment towards Suntec Singapore is evidence of the good rapport that we have built throughout the years with business partners as well as the growing community of students seeking holiday jobs,” Yang explains.

Still, organisations can do more to further attract talent to the services sector. One way is for them to start at the beginning and work more closely with education institutions which offer retail or food and beverage courses.

“This would make what the students study ‘come alive’, whilst providing much-needed manpower for these industries,” says Goh. “Linking with schools would insure organisations against a manpower shortage by providing a constant pool of interns for jobs. In addition, the organisations can identify potential candidates to groom for future development.”

Organisations will also need to understand expectations from an alternative talent pool: housewives and active seniors. “With a better understanding, they will better redesign their work arrangements to meet their demands,” says Goh.

Also, the nature of the hospitality industry is such that the talent of service staff underpins the level of service excellence provided, says Yang. Running a convention and exhibition centre requires certain skill sets and it is crucial to attract the right people and to place them in the right roles.

“As part of the HR team looking after the people of Suntec Singapore, our goal is to ultimately nurture our internal talent pool into champions of world-class service excellence. Training is a critical part of both our ability to attract talent as well as to up their game,” Yang explains.

“In the same way, we go all out to foster constant communication and transparency with our business partners and contractors so that in turn, they can support us with the right labour force when we need it.”

Courts Asia ensures newcomers do not wade in deep waters alone and has introduced structured coaching and mentoring programmes to ensure they can effectively ease into their roles. “It is also important to create a work environment that is collaborative, supportive and progressive and work closely with employees to build a roadmap for their professional development,” says Kaur.

She also emphasised that remuneration was still a key consideration factor for prospective employees, and that it must be competitive and sensitive to economic and market conditions. It should be in line with structured policies on job-related allowances, commission, overtime, incentives and bonuses.

Case study: Brotzeit
Singapore home-grown German restaurant franchise, Brotzeit, recently unveiled a string of new initiatives to attract and retain talent ranging from remuneration packages, training schemes and added perks in the face of the growing talent crunch in the food and beverage sector.
  • Work-Life Balance and Pro-Family Schemes
    • More attractive remuneration packages for both part-time and full-time staff
    • More flexible working hours
    • Five-day work-week for full-time staff consisting of not more than 44 hours a week – as opposed to many other establishments which still follow a six-day work-week and long working hours
    • Paid paternity leave of one week, along with the mandatory four month maternity leave for employees – to encourage workers with families to join the Brotzeit team
  • Performance Driven Incentives
    • Performance bonuses are determined through employees’ yearly performance assessments
    • Additional monetary incentives are available for staff from each Brotzeit outlet who meet monthly sales and customer service targets
  • New Staff Training Portal – part of a new HR initiative with Spring Singapore to maximise productivity
    • Consists of multiple modules, undertaken in an informative and interactive manner through quizzes and videos to cover the brand’s history, menu and operations
    • Chapter progression will be based on the passing of each one, which also enables management to monitor what specific areas each trainee is strong and weak in.
  • An all-inclusive Brotzeit team
    • Brotzeit works closely with welfare organisations such as Bizlink (to employ hearing impaired staff) and Score (in hiring ex-convicts for the company’s kitchen crew)
  • More cohesion activities
    • Annual staff Christmas party where attractive prizes are given out, such as tickets to Munich for Oktoberfest celebrations
    • Managers for all outlets conduct monthly gatherings and outings with an allocated budget
    • Tours to the Paulaner Brauhaus microbrewery are also conducted quarterly as part of educational trips for employees on the beer-making process.
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