A harsh reality looms for job seekers and fresh graduates. The local labour market is no longer candidate-driven at the moment with the number of job openings sinking by as much as 80 per cent in recent weeks amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Shirley has thought about embarking on a trip of a few weeks upon attaining a bachelor’s degree in business administration this year. “My friends and I had discussed that it’s difficult to have a long holiday once you’ve started working, so we have planned we should travel a bit first upon graduation,” she says, a year four student of a local university who only wants to go by her first name.
In their perspective, it’s not difficult to land on a job in a local gaming operator or a hotel even after their long holiday, given the city’s unemployment rate having once stayed at two per cent or below for nearly eight years. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) since early this year, however, has made Shirley and her friends have a second thought about their plan.
Reading news about employees taking no-pay leave or not having their contracts renewed, and about companies struggling to stay afloat or even closing down amid a deteriorating economy caused by the global pandemic, Shirley faces the daunting reality. “My mum yelled at me and said that it’s better to have a job in this economic climate,” she notes, adding she also couldn’t travel anywhere with the travel restrictions in places across different countries and regions in the fight against COVID-19.
But it’s not that simple for Shirley and nearly 8,000 local fresh graduates this year to look for a job now — even if they are committed to it. With a plunge of as much as 80 per cent in the number of job openings in the labour market, analysts highlight the situation might continue for months, and fresh graduates, job seekers or job hoppers should manage their expectations.
The latest economic data has begun to show how the COVID-19 outbreak has wreaked havoc in the local tourism-reliant economy, when the monthly visitation to the territory has fallen over 90 per cent since February. According to the Statistics and Census Service, the jobless rate in the city also reached 2.1 per cent in the January-March period, the highest since the April-June period of 2012. Among local residents, the unemployment rate hit 2.9 per cent in the first quarter of this year, the highest since the third quarter of 2011.
The unemployment rate could have been higher if the government had not “urged” large corporations — namely, gaming operators that account for over one-fifth of the city’s labour force — to shoulder corporate social responsibility and maintain the headcount of local employees.
“The gaming operators might have the cushion to fall back on amid the negative impact caused by COVID-19, but it’s clear that local small and medium sized enterprises are struggling,” says Zeng Zhonglu, a professor at Centre for Gaming and Tourism Studies of Macau Polytechnic Institute.
“If the travel restrictions across the globe continue for a longer time period, the [overall] jobless rate might continue to rise and hit over three per cent,” the scholar adds. Macau last saw its overall unemployment above three per cent in 2010, when the city was still reeling from the pains of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.
Though companies might try hard to not lay off any local staff, they refrain from recruiting new employees in this time period. Tilothy Lao, customer service manager at job recruitment website 853.com, notes prior to the pandemic some companies like retail brands had already been conservative in recruitment and expansion plans over the lacklustre economy. Macau’s gross domestic product fell 4.7 per cent last year, the first decline in three years, over the slowing Mainland Chinese economy and the on-going trade tensions between China and the United States.
“With the COVID-19 outbreak, the number of job openings in the labour market has once gone down as much as 80 per cent compared to the pre-pandemic period,” Mr. Lao remarks.
Less hirers, more seekers
But the recruitment executive notes starting from May the situation has slightly improved because some construction and engineering companies have started to hire people again. The latest Policy Address unveiled in April pinpointed that the government would accelerate local infrastructure projects, as well as construction and municipal affairs projects for SMEs, to revive the economy. “Construction and engineering companies, a few retail brands, and some financial firms like insurers are the companies that are still hiring new blood now,” Mr. Lao highlights. “But the number of job openings now still represents a 70-percent decrease from the past.”
He believes the labour market will only be significantly improved when the travel restrictions between Macau and the mainland have been lifted, meaning more tourists could come to Macau to drive the recovery of the local economy. “The best scenario is that if some of the travel restrictions have been lifted in June, some companies might feel more comfortable to start hiring again in July or August,” he illustrates.
While many companies have stopped engaging in the recruitment practice in the past few months, there have been more job seekers. Mr. Lao indicates the number of job inquiries his recruitment website has received in March and April more than tripled before the pandemic hit, most likely due to fresh graduates and those who have lost their jobs.
No dream job
In addition to urging large corporations to not lay off local staff and pledging to invest in local infrastructure for creating employment opportunities, the government has also launched paid occupation training for the unemployed and local residents to enhance their vocational abilities. The officials have also warned the 7,900 local fresh graduates this year it would be more difficult for them to get employed.
In a Policy Address session in April, Secretary for Economy and Finance Lei Wai Nong told the Legislative Assembly that the government has been in contact with public companies and large corporations to more provide internship opportunities for youngsters and fresh graduates in the meanwhile. He also encouraged local youngsters to view the current predicament as an opportunity for personal growth.
Henry, who only wants to be identified by his first name, is also a graduate this year and his job hunting attempt has so far been in vain. “I’ve sent my CV [curriculum vitae] to over 20 companies — mainly gaming operators, hotels, retail brands, public utilities — since early this year, but so far I have not heard anything back from them,” he says, who studies tourism management in a local university.
The tourism graduate is not worried about not having a job, but a job that matches his interests and academic field. “If I have to, I think I could work as a waiter at cha chaan teng (local eateries) or a sales assistant at some local shops,” he says. “But, I definitely want to start my career with a job to which I could apply what I have learned in the past four years.”
Most of his classmates shared a similar fate like his, except a few have successfully gotten offers from some retail companies, Henry says. “We have also attended and applied at the online recruitment fair organized by our school, which claim to have thousands of job openings, but my friends and I have not had any luck,” he adds.
Given the on-going pandemic and the necessary social distancing measures, the local tertiary education institutions have either delayed and hosted their recruitment fairs and career days in the online format. Local manpower firm MSS Recruitment has continued its collaboration with the University of Macau Alumni Association and University of Macau Postgraduate Association to organize the Macau Joint Campus Online Recruitment Fair. In its ninth edition this year, the event claims to attract the participation of over 70 firms providing more than 1,200 job openings, compared with the participation of over 76 firms last year.
Jiji Tu, managing director of MSS Recruitment, says she notices companies this year are “less enthusiastic” in joining campus recruitment fairs due to COVID-19. “As far as I know, many casinos and hotels have not hired any people in recent times,” she says. “The number of job openings available in these past few weeks have declined at last by half from last year.”
In a sharp contrast to the past labour market that was candidate-driven over the low jobless rate level, Ms. Tu remarks: “Most job seekers now only want to have a stable job rather than an ideal job.” Compared with those who have just lost their jobs in the recent pandemic, she notes the fresh graduates are less competitive with less job experience.
“In the past the monthly salary level for fresh graduates usually ranged between MOP12,000 and MOP15,000,” she continues, “I won’t be surprised the salary range might lower to MOP10,000 and MOP12,000 this year.”
The human resources market expert adds should the economy and labour market remain lacklustre in the next few months, the government might consider the possibilities of launching subsidized internship programs with private companies to provide opportunities for fresh graduates to accumulate working experience.
Back to Shirely, she has sent job applications to nearly 10 firms in recent weeks, which have so far fallen on deaf ears. “If I still haven’t gotten any feedback and calls from the companies, and if the travel restrictions across different places might gradually be lifted soon, I might still go for the long trip,” she says.
“I don’t know,” she concludes, “the whole situation is perplexing.”