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The Career Development "Pill" for Singapore
by Gerald Tan

Singapore. A tiny island nation of over 5 million people who went from third world to first world in just 50 years. Much is known of our self­made success, relying on our only resource ­ human capital, to create economies and better lives for our people. Our transformation is indeed nothing short of an astounding success and this is owing to the astute vision of our first government in encouraging trade and developing new economies as well as our forefathers who worked hard to sustain their families and themselves.

As a tiny nation in the world, we are under no illusion that we are at the mercy of larger economic forces at work. We rode the waves of recession, including the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s, the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s and the most recent Subprime Crisis in 2008. Each time we coped, through government measures, and managed to stem unemployment to around 3%. Even in today’s volatile economy, our unemployment rate has been hovering in the range of 2% for the last four years.

Our rags to riches story and our efforts to keep our economy strong and unemployment low have been lauded and studied by other nations. As we continue to transform our economy and prepare for the next wave, the government has identified three initiatives to move the nation towards future economic growth.1 The first is the need for our enterprises to move from value addition towards value creation. The next two are strongly linked to the development of our workforce. Our labour force participation rate is now 67%,2 the highest in the last decade. The task is now to build up each member of the workforce to develop mastery of his skills and to ensure a productive and highly skilled workforce, so as to support economic growth. These two initiatives are known as the SkillsFuture.3

Our "Magic Pill" – SkillsFuture?

In early 2015, our government introduced the SkillsFuture initiative, which brought together multiple government agencies to develop interventions to facilitate career development and planning, skills upgrading. The initiative caters to the current working professionals and the nation’s young. For students, the Ministry of Education has taken steps to professionalise career guidance services, introduce industry immersion experiences and more internships to guide students in developing industry awareness, explore career and education pathways. The Workforce Development Agency (under the Ministry of Manpower) is developing a national career development portal to career exploration, awareness and planning needs based the different life stages of every worker. There is also training support catered for specific growing industries to build in­depth sectoral skills mastery, facilitate re­training of mid­career switchers as well as empowering all individuals to take ownership of skills upgrading through provision of $500 training credits.

Given that majority of the SkillsFuture implementation takes place only in 2016, it is premature at this point to assess the effectiveness of the initiative. However, as we know, the sharpest tool is only useful when placed in the hands of a skilled worker. SkillsFuture is only a set of tools and interventions put in place by the government. The success of it relies heavily on how our people understand the purpose behind career development and use SkillsFuture to further their own careers.

So why is it hard for our people to understand the need and importance of career development?

Our Social Context

The reality of our tiny nation competing in the global arena of nations has created a do-­or­-die mindset in our society which translates to priority on economic pursuits. We have embraced the ethos of always being competitive, ahead of the curve, getting things done correctly and quickly so that we can survive and thrive in the global economy. Success, is associated primarily by economic or gross domestic product gain. Cascading down to our people, we feel that we have to work hard to survive, cope with our high cost of living, manage our fear of losing everything we worked hard for and being viewed as left behind among our peers.

This mindset translates to a somewhat unbalanced definition of success among our people. Success for a person is defined by the financial status, earning ability or job status, rather than self worth, career satisfaction and fulfilment. Our employment mindset is now skewed towards taking the common and safest route – to go on a paper chase for an academic degree, achieve financial stability and to earn as much as possible, for as long as possible. We are fast becoming a nation of book­smart tertiary educated workforce­ our tertiary educated local workforce almost doubled in the last decade.4 The primary motivation for pursuing a university education is to get a higher paying job because vocational education and specialised technical industries do not pay well.5 This trend could eventually create a shortage of technical vocational expertise in our workforce or create a surplus of degree holders, pushing them into the vocational workforce.

This article shall focus on three groups most affected by our social context mentioned above. The opinions expressed in this article were borne from qualitative professional and personal observations and are only representative of the general Singapore population.

The Undecided Young

While career exploration and discovery has been encouraged in schools starting from primary levels, it has not taken off in a great way. The reason is because of the parents who have the stronger influence over their children. As concerned parents who want the best for their children, they preach and base their career guidance efforts on an assumption ­ that attaining a degree will guarantee a secure future. This is probably because it had worked for their own careers or was what they were taught by their parents.

Being guided by this assumption means the pursuit of academic achievements starts off from a young age and culminates at ages 12 and 16 where the children are faced with national milestone examinations. These examinations are deemed high stakes by parents because the results will determine their children's education pathway and possible career pathways. To help their children ace the examinations, tuition has become a must ­have for the child to ace every examination. Proof of this ­ tuition today is a $1 billion industry in Singapore.6 Hobbies in the area of arts or sports have also become important not because of the interest and enjoyment of the child, but because developing excellence in these areas could create a higher chance to enter a better school which in turn increases the possibility of better grades.

Over time, the children pour all their efforts into studying and getting into good schools and finally a degree. The opportunity cost associated with this? The children lack self awareness of their interests, become risk adverse and only make decisions that benefit academic excellence rather than career inclinations or making use of opportunities that come along their way. In the care of overzealous parents, it is also possible that the children fail to develop volition ­ having autonomous ownership of their career decision. All these because of their parents’ assumption of the importance of a degree for career success.

The awakening moment comes when the growing children need to make their own education decision or enter the workforce. It is a rude awakening for most. Some children become lost when they fail to secure a university place. Those who got a place are faced with uncertainty about their area of study. They could end up making a choice based on their peers’ choice, their family’s choice, courses where graduates earn the most upon graduating or even frivolous considerations such as courses that increase their chances of meeting someone of the opposite gender!

There are consequences to such ill-informed decision making and they could surface during or after graduation. Some graduates realise that they do not want to go into what they have been trained to work as. Some delay making their career decisions by doing further studies. Some refrain from entering the workforce because they are still confused and undecided on their career pathways. Some just follow where their peers are going, what their parents hope they do or join any reputable firm with promise of big money.

In such situations, it is fair to say that money and time has been wasted on the education. This is exemplified by a case that was reported in Singapore a few years ago where an academically brilliant student wanted to leave her biomedical research job to pursue a career in the arts field. She could not do so, given that she was bonded to her company after they had supported her with almost three quarters of a million dollars for her biomedical education.7

Back-track all these to where it all started. This assumption of a degree (any degree!) for future success is held so dearly today by parents although it is outdated. With the world of work fast changing and new work trends emerging, this assumption needs to be moderated with more focus on career development.

Parents today must first take the brave step to devote some time and effort away from academic pursuits, learn how career development takes place and guide, facilitate their children’s career exploration and awareness. Through SkillsFuture, there will be resources from primary, secondary and tertiary schools that parents can use too. Career learning opportunities abound in public spaces. For example, parents could draw attention to different occupations in the society, encourage their children to explore occupations online or even at theme parks such as KidsZania.8 Our society also needs to change their mindsets from academic pursuits to one which encourages our young to explore, discover the world of work and take risks. There should be more career conversations between the workforce and the young, so that our young can learn about how career choices and transitions are navigated and made.

The Stuck Workers

Regular employment has benefitted our workers by providing financial stability, a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging in a society that values economic contribution from its people. However, the satisfaction of our workers in their jobs is questionable.

  • 23% of employees in Singapore are unmotivated by their jobs, with a majority 64% wanting to change jobs within 12 months. Their source of unhappiness comes from misalignment with company culture, leadership and workload.9
  • Singaporeans ranked among the unhappiest workers in Asia Pacific, with 75% feeling that their jobs were only meant to provide income and nothing more.10

The need for more income to cope with high living standards is also causing our workers to become more stressed. 1 in 3 employees find it hard to let go of work during holidays.11 Based on a 2011 study, Singapore also clocked in the second longest working hours in the world.12

These narrative behind these statistics paint a depressing picture of our work force. People are unhappy and unmotivated by their work and the workplace, wanting to change employers but still choosing to work long hours and on off days likely because of the salary. In a nation where cost of living is high,13 salary becomes the main motivator for working and many will choose to move towards jobs that pay more, rather than towards career satisfaction. As pointed out by Mr Victor Mills in our local newspaper, our workers are making career changes based on minute salary increments rather than career satisfaction.14

Our workers need to start aligning their careers to areas where they are interested in or areas where their work values and motivations can be met. Many of them should be able to do so, especially in our current tight labour market making it an “employees’ market” to explore job openings within or outside of their organisation. However, there are some who will struggle to do so because they face barriers such as high opportunity costs to change jobs or careers, lack of self-awareness or the job transition skills to make a change. The plight of these stuck workers is elaborated below.

The high living standards, large housing and car debts to pay, children expenses and the investment made into building their careers over the years have made some of our workers too hesitant or hasty (for a quick pay increase) in making a career change. They will only consider passion, interest and values in their career­change equation if it could stabilise or increase their income. Thus it becomes easier to hold on to the job that they have worked hard for and continue to enjoy the financial security that comes with it, making it a false sense of security.

There are workers who want a career change but do not know where and how to go about it. Some focused too much on their jobs and did not have time to or forgot to self-­evaluate, reflect on their interests, values and skills, basically failing to do career development. Based on the Social Cognitive Career Theory, these people have lost touch with labour market developments and trends, possess old habits, untested assumptions and fixed mind­sets of their view of the working world.

The plight of our stuck workers needs to stop somewhere, otherwise it could spill over into social issues such as family and community cohesiveness. Career development needs to take centre stage in the lives of all workers, not just those unemployed or wanting to make a change. The responsibility of this lies with the individuals and it starts from shifting our mindset from one of “lifetime employment” to “lifetime preparation”. Through SkillsFuture, the national career development portal would provide some direction and guidelines on how to prepare oneself for career change, how to assess interests, values and skills. Training credits will be given to offset cost of training or retraining. However, more can be done by the private sector. Organisations, especially the Small, Medium Enterprises, need to start investing in career planning for their staff, as a form of talent retention and development. This is not easy, given that they could lack specialized human resource personnel to develop this area, lack basic human resource systems and policies to facilitate staff career planning, or simply fail to see talent management as a priority. Recruitment agencies also need to start helping clients to plan their careers instead of placing them in any high paying job so as to earn from their next placement.

The Hardworking Seniors

In Singapore, the official retirement age is 62 years with a possible extension to 65 years and even to 67 years in time to come. As soon as our seniors turn 62, it is legislated that employers must offer re­employment to them. Re­employment means that our seniors get revised employment contracts to scope down their duties or change portfolio and often it also means a pay cut.

It is admirable to legislate contractual work for seniors because they do have very much to offer in terms of experience and skills. However, when faced with a revised employment contract offer, many of our seniors face a dilemma and wonder whether they should accept the contract and transit to a reduced role or explore other jobs or stop working at all. This is after all a generation of workers who have dedicated a lot of their lives to work so they are not well prepared to cope with the prospect of stopping or reducing work.

Seniors who choose to take on a reduced role in the same organisation often feel a big loss. Their career building efforts suddenly end up in almost nothing. To some, this feels like an insult and it lowers their self­esteem. An acquaintance of mine used to hold a Director level position in his organisation, only to be offered the role of a Senior Manager under re-employment. What made it worse was that his new role was in the same department as where he was previously Director.

Some seniors will turn down re-employment terms as they still feel they can offer more than a scoped down job role. Who could blame them for thinking this way? After all, working life is second nature to them after having worked continuously for so many years. Now that they had the full work and life experience, they felt that they should be highly regarded and valued by employers. A new job should be easy to find. Wrong. The harsh truth is that employers here tend to avoid those at the re-employment age because of the high cost of medical insurance and the concerns about culture fit and the seniors’ physical, mental capacity to equally contribute as much as the younger workers. These seniors find it hard to return to the corporate work world and eventually will accept any form of work, just to keep active and pass time. Some choose to freelance, take on part time or small projects. Others will have no choice but to work in menial jobs.

The seniors who choose full retirement, could also regret later on because they are bored at home or are unable to cope with family life or duties after being so used to the outside working world. Oh, how they wish they had accepted the re­employment terms!

Although seniors are at the end of their careers, they are not a group that should be neglected. Much more can be done to harness the experience and skills of these seniors as well as to keep them active, connected with the society and learning. With our fast ageing population and life expectancy expected to also increase, it becomes an important issue which impacts social policies. A local newspaper article pointed out that helping seniors stay active in their careers could help them prolong their financial status, find meaning and remain connected with the society and avoid disillusionment with life.15

Our hardworking seniors could benefit from career decision making frameworks and theories such as Donald Super's Career Life Stages or Hansen’s Integrated Life Planning to help them find meaning in the twilight of their lives. Hopefully our senior can learn these from the SkillsFuture national career development portal. SkillsFuture training credits can also be used to pursue training in areas they have been interested in but had no time to do in the past.

Seniors should be viewed as specialists and be given support to become freelancers or volunteers to ensure they can work at a comfortable pace while benefiting others. There should be community structures, social activities to help seniors to network and support each other in both life and work. For example, seniors who have a common passion could start a small business, social enterprise or interest group together. These are but some initiatives mentioned in policy papers on successful ageing in Singapore.16

Can Singapore Benefit from the Career Development "Pill"?

Singapore has benefitted greatly from good government policies in the past. With the SkillsFuture, resources and tools have been put in place. What is left is for the people of Singapore is to understand the importance of career development, reflect on their own life stages and take suitable action towards using SkillsFuture or other measures to do their career planning and development.

Sources:

  1. Beyond 50: Singapore’s growth strategy shifts: http://www.iesingapore.gov.sg/Media-Centre/News/2015/8/Beyond-50--Singapore-s-growth-strategy-shifts
  2. Singapore Labour Force Participation Rate: http://stats.mom.gov.sg/Pages/Labour-Force-Summary-Table.aspx
  3. SkillsFuture: http://www.skillsfuture.sg
  4. Singapore Yearbook of Manpower Statistics 2015 Table A4: http://stats.mom.gov.sg/Pages/Singapore-Yearbook-Of-Manpower-Statistics-2015.aspx
  5. Is a degree really all-important? http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/is-a-degree-really-all-important
  6. $1 billion spent on tuition in one year: http://news.asiaone.com/news/education/1-billion-spent-tuition-one-year
  7. A Star scientist who walked naked throughout Holland Village: http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/astar-scientist-who-walked-naked-through-holland-village-took-up-two
  8. http://www.kidzania.com.sg
  9. Are Singaporean Employees Really Unhappy in their Jobs: http://www.randstad.com.sg/workforce360/articles/are-singaporean-employees-really-unhappy-in-their-jobs
  10. Singapore employees among least satisfied in Asia Pacific: http://www.randstadaward.com.sg/about-randstad/randstad-pressroom/singapore-employees-among-the-least-satisfied-in-apac
  11. Singapore employees can’t switch off from work: http://www.randstad.com.sg/workforce360/articles/media-release-singapore-employees-cant-switch-off-from-work
  12. Singapore clock second longest working hours: http://www.humanresourcesonline.net/singaporeans-clock-second-longest-working-hours/
  13. Singapore still the world’s most expensive city: http://www.straitstimes.com/business/economy/singapore-still-worlds-most-expensive-city-says-eiu
  14. Singaporeans have misplaced sense of entitlement: http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/singaporeans-have-misplaced-sense-of-entitlement-says-sicc-head-victor-mills
  15. Rethink retirement as the grand finale to working life: http://www.straitstimes.com/forum/letters-in-print/rethink-retirement-as-the-grand-finale-to-working-life
  16. Perceptions and Attitudes towards Ageing and Seniors: http://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/ips/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/10/wp22_1510151.pdf

Gerald Tan is a career development facilitator from Singapore. He has wide experience working in the public service on national employment trends and policies. This article was contributed together with 3 other professionals with the same interests.

Contact him at: gtanzp@gmail.com


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