SINGAPORE — Against the background of a tight labour market, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) will be conducting a manpower audit and study of the travel agent industry, which industry players say faces an image problem when it comes to recruitment.
The move, which also involves studying manpower projections up to 2016 and 2020, followed forecasts last April that Singapore’s tourism growth would halve over the next decade due to regional competition and tight manpower supply.
In a tender document published on GeBiz on Dec 26 inviting vendors to submit their proposals for the study, the STB said travel agents — also referred to as travel agencies — need to enhance their ability to attract and retain local talent including young talents, to sustain productivity and for business continuity.
“The study will look into various aspects including talent attraction, retention and development, and is expected to involve current and potential employees, as well as management members of the travel industry,” said Ms Ong Ling Lee, STB Director, Travel Agents and Tourist Guides.
The STB said there are currently about 1,200 travel agents across a mix of business segments, such as inbound and outbound travel, corporate ticketing and destination management.
Ms Alicia Seah, Director of Marketing Communications at Dynasty Travel, said younger Singaporeans may be more attracted to the hotel and resort segments, which they may deem more exciting and creative.
“Travel agencies, to the new employment market, seem like a ‘sunset’ industry and thus, we need to change that mindset,” she said.
The low starting salary also poses a challenge to recruitment and it is difficult to find people with a passion for customer service, she added.
Ms Jane Chang, Marketing Communications Manager at Chan Brothers Travel, said the average annual turnover rate at her company is 11 per cent. Travel agents are perceived as less prestigious than the airline or hotel segments, though travel agents have moved beyond ticketing and accommodation booking, she said.
The National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS) said about seven out of 10 employees in the industry are Singaporeans and permanent residents. Most working in the sector hold at least an O- or A-Level certificate and some are diploma or degree holders.
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Ms Anita Tan, NATAS Chief Operating Officer, said: “Fresh local talent are often not attracted by the entry-level prospects offered by the travel agent industry and it is challenging for travel agents to match talent to jobs, as careers within the travel industry are greatly varied and require different skills.”
The starting pay at travel agents ranges from S$1,600 to S$2,000, depending on the company and job scope, said industry players. Those recruited typically start in front-line service roles before moving to back-end operations after three to five years. Promotion to managerial roles comes after about 10 years.
The tourism sector contributes 4 per cent to Singapore’s gross domestic product and supports 160,000 jobs. The STB hopes to increase the number of jobs to 250,000 by next year. To attract more young people to the travel industry, NATAS said last year it was giving out more scholarships this year. About 20 of these scholarships, worth up to S$4,000 each, will help recipients pay for studies at the Tourism Management Institute of Singapore. Institute of Technical Education graduates and holders of an O- or N-level certificate are eligible to apply.
In the meantime, travel agents can seek automation to boost productivity and efficiency, said Ms Tan.
“However, it is not easy for travel agents to pick up new technologies as they lack the monetary resources to invest in such technologies,” she noted.