Southeast Asia Jobs Market 2023: Our Top-5 Predictions

by Mark

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We find ourselves at the end of the year once again and what a busy year it’s been. The Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting and a buoyant post-Covid jobs market in the region have certainly kept us busy and engaged. But now that the Christmas period is upon us and New Year just around the corner, what might 2023 hold for us all?

In this final post of 2022, we make our top-5 predictions for the year ahead…


1.      More people back to offices

While the West continues to debate the pros and cons of remote working, its feels like the argument has almost been won in Asia – in favour of offices. Earlier this year, US real estate services company CBRE polled 150 Asia-Pacific enterprises. It found that 38% of respondents expected staff members to work exclusively at the office, a big increase from 26% in 2021. This contrasted to findings from the US and EMEA, where only 5% or less of respondents expected employees to be in the office full-time. While the results also showed that nearly 60% of businesses were still expecting to be operating a hybrid model by the end of 2022, roughly half of those wanted staff to spend most of their time at the office, with the rest splitting it 50:50. No doubt larger and multi-national firms in the region will continue to encourage hybrid working in line with global HR policies, but we expect that smaller firms will be even more keen to see staff in the office where they feel they can better oversee productivity and where personal interactions are better quality. Therefore, we can only see this upward trend of office working continuing.


2.      Continued shortage of, and high demand for, digital skills

We covered the demand for digital skills in a previous blog this year and we don’t see this situation changing any time soon. The shortage of local digital talent in the Singapore-Malaysia region will take time - and a strong will - to remedy, and having adopted an eCommerce platform or direct-to-consumer offering, most companies will continue with this, while cybersecurity continues to see a massive boom, driven by online working and payments. The pandemic has brought pretty much everyone on the planet into the digital sphere, so demand will continue to outstrip supply for a while. However, this will likely accelerate the next trend:


3.      Increase in international talent

Initiatives such as Singapore’s mass-reskilling and Malaysia’s MyDigitalWorkforce are aimed at reducing reliance on foreign labour. However, as borders continue to relax, hiring in foreigners will be the reaction that most will anticipate. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, once said that without immigrants the economy would collapse by 2050 – an attitude that may prove hard to shift as more foreign talent becomes available again. What the new government of Anwar Ibrahim plans in Malaysia remains to be seen, but we predict that both countries will renew outreach to foreign talent once more, albeit in a more limited way than pre-pandemic.


4.      Resilience becomes the most sort-after character trait

What the global pandemic demonstrated to everyone was that you need a work force that is both agile and resilient. We’ve already noticed this in senior level interviews, where candidates are being asked about how they navigated the setbacks of redundancy and remote working during the crisis of Covid, what risks they took in their businesses and how they managed others during this time. 2023 is likely to see a recession in the US that could impact global economies, combined with an energy crisis and global conflicts of various kinds, the world is less secure than perhaps it was a few years ago. Against this backdrop, businesses are looking for employees and leaders who can weather the storm and take difficult decisions when needed.


5.      Diversity push

While much of the West is now taking a more involved look at a broad spectrum of diversity dimensions and looking at how to best accommodate these in the workforce (gender, ethnicity, but also physical ability, neuro-diversity and age as some examples), Asia in general is still grappling with gender diversity in a big way – with a specific focus on the male/female divide – see our previous blog for International Women’s Day. The Covid19 lockdowns, combined with remote working and the period when all the kids were learning online increased gender gaps in employment and education. In addition, conversative mindsets tend to put a disproportionate burden on women when it comes to caregiving, while continuing to expect top level delivery in the workplace.


For Singapore, the gender pay gap has barely changed over the past 20 years, stagnating at around 16% (as an unadjusted figure) despite women making up 64.2% of the labour force in 2021, entering more STEM roles than ever before and making a slightly greater impression at board level. While these figures are still behind targets and there is a huge amount of work to do, this nevertheless increases the progressive pressure in the market towards gender equality.


For Malaysia, the country was ranked 103 on the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index 2022, trailing Singapore (49), Thailand (79) and Indonesia (92). And the pay gap has not narrowed over the past 10 years, in spite of discussions on the topic dating back to 1957, a female labour force participation rate of 54.6% in 2021, and a generally higher level of education among women, rather than men, in that workforce. However, there has been progress here too. 2021 data indicated that female representation on the top 100 PLC Boards of Directors in Malaysia was at 25.8%, an 82% increase from 2015 and, in January this year, Bursa Malaysia updated its listing rules, mandating that all PLCs should have at least one female director by June 2023. Again, this is an inevitable increase in pressure driving the market to gender equality.


Therefore, we expect this shift to accelerate in 2023 and we’ll also expect to see more initiatives in both territories to further promote equal pay for women and men and greater female representation in senior positions.


And finally…

We hope you’ve had a great year in 2022 and we’d like to wish all our candidates, clients, colleagues and friends a very Merry Christmas holiday and a fantastic New Year – from all of us at Ellwood Consulting.