Riding the Winds of Change

For the class of 2001, the loud applause, exhilaration, and cheers at commencement dissipated all too quickly into the gloom of harsh reality. As the economic repercussions of the 11 September incident in the United States reverberated across the globe, Singapore--barely out of the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s--found itself grappling with new problems. Massive contraction in export demands, wrenching deceleration of growth, and exacerbated bad debts quickly forced many firms to downsize, and companies have been laying off employees by the hundred.

By December of last year, more than 25,000 positions had been eliminated, and 12,500 tertiary graduates were reportedly still waiting for jobs. Last week, at the unveiling of the Jobs Task Force--a new ministerial level committee set up to address the urgent tasks of saving jobs and helping the unemployed with training and job-matching--the Minister of State for Education and Manpower, Mr. Ng Eng Hen, warned that many more professional, executive, and managerial positions may face the axe in the year ahead. Inevitably, this will push the unemployment rate--estimated at 4.5% in December--up still further. And with some 80,000 people already out of work, there is little hope of a reprieve for job seekers.

Lynette Ng is among those concerned about her career prospects. A graduate in physics, she has not been able to secure a full-time job since she graduated early last year. She is tutoring secondary students to pass her time and make ends meet. Said Ng, "The employers are unreasonable. They ask for relevant experience all the time. Where would I gain experience if I never have a chance in the first place?" According to Ng, her peers who majored in life sciences have been more fortunate. "Most of them got placements within 2 to 3 months after graduation and some even had more than one offer!" exclaimed Ng.

Jeffery Tan, a financial consultant who was recently laid off, has not been able to find another job in the financial sector, which has undergone a wave of consolidations, mergers, and restructuring. Living for now on his little severance package and bracing for bleak times ahead, Tan is contemplating taking a break to sign up for a course in the biomedical sciences to prepare a career switch into this "dynamic and expanding area where opportunities still abound."

For Richard Tay, a physical science graduate of the class of 1993 and a recent victim of the contraction in the manufacturing sector, 8 years of valuable experience do not seem to be helping him secure his next job. "Getting back into the same role is impossible," said Tay. After months of trying for an alternative career, more than 30 applications, and five unsuccessful interviews, Tay is "losing confidence." The situation could have been better if he had a multidisciplinary exposure. Tay said he has been told that he was "over-specialized," which means that potential employers don't see him "as an immediate contributor" in areas that are unfamiliar to him.

These young graduates symbolize a growing incongruity in Singapore's rapidly changing economic scene. It is not that there are no vacancies. Although jobs in the service and manufacturing sector have become a scarcity, there are apparently still thousands of unfilled positions in other fields, such as health care, technology, and R&D. And whereas employers offering jobs have said that job applicants are too choosy and applicants looking for positions claim that employers are too demanding, the actual problem could be more complex than a mere clash of ideals and expectations. Other than the impact of an economic downturn and clear disequilibria in the supply and demand of the various workforces, a paradigm shift in the concept of employment is affecting the way jobs and careers are perceived.

With major restructuring of state and private enterprises, corporate consolidations and mergers, and a refocus of government initiatives, employment trends are changing so fast that few can keep up. Moreover, in response to rapid technological advances, organizational structures have been transformed over the past decade, leading to drastic changes in the employer-employee relationship. Life-long jobs are being replaced with term contracts, making way for a more flexible workforce that enables firms to respond faster to economic changes. The traditional singular roles that characterize multilayered corporate hierarchy systems are also becoming passé. In an increasingly technology-driven and highly competitive economy, white-collars jobs are getting increasingly complex as job portfolios expand to accommodate cross-functional responsibilities.

Today's managers and executives are expected to juggle multiple and often cross-disciplinary roles. Hiring expert Bob Otis, managing director of Atlantic Research Technologies L.L.C., describes it as what people often refer to when they say, "I wear a lot of hats." According to Otis, "it used to be that start-up firms, due to lack of resources, required a single person to fulfill several managerial or technical tasks. But now, that culture has crept into large multinationals as well, and it is not uncommon to see people with multidisciplinary experiences or training."

The evolution from a hierarchical to a more networked organizational structure has made cross-boundary knowledge and project management skills more vital for employers than the traditional supervisory and technical skills. Indeed, today's team-based approaches, extensive technology applications, and interdisciplinary projects increasingly demand generalists. "Clearly there are more requests for people with a cross-disciplinary approach, but there still are needs for really good super-specialists," says Otis. "This greatly depends upon the field and the industry. Sometimes an employer wants to see a very intensive and narrow specialization, while others might like to see diverse experiences." However, he cautioned, "In a business and technology environment that is changing so rapidly, there are risks in hoping that one's specialization will forever be in demand."

As to what will be the most valued skills set for the next 5 to 10 years, Otis maintained that strong communications skills are and will continue to be very important. "Companies want technical and business people to work together, to communicate frequently, and to build quality in at the front end," he maintains. Especially for Singapore, Otis stressed that an ability to understand other cultures well will be more critical than ever as international business becomes more important. "Right now, many companies are structured intercontinentally, with design or research or marketing or manufacturing groups spread across many countries. This trend will continue, and Singaporean technical people who can communicate effectively with neighbors and with people in faraway countries will be critical to Singapore's success."

Otis predicts that in the next 5 to 10 years, Singaporean industry and employees will face a lot of competition and it will soon be "critical for Singaporean entrepreneurs to have employees who really know the entire world." Moreover, he says, "it's important to always remember that yesterday's underdeveloped country is today's industrializing country and tomorrow's technological country, and at each stage of development, they are your potential customers."

On how to stay relevant and competent in the face of rapidly changing economic trends, widespread restructuring, and increasing competition, Otis highlighted the importance of keeping in touch with one's colleagues at other companies in the same industry, knowing what they are doing, and what is happening to them. "Extracurricular gatherings might be the best way to hear specifics about industry changes that could be affecting your career even if it isn't obvious at your workplace," he suggested. He recommended that employees should request that their employers give them new challenges or assignments that could help them gain valuable experiences and exposures or certain state-of-the-art equipment, instruments, or software that might keep their skills relevant and marketability high. "In reality," he added, "no company, no matter how good or well-funded it is, can remain aloof forever to world trends in their industry."

Otis concludes that "further training or university studies might be valuable to keep skills fresh." But, he says, "in many cases, simply being around people who know more than you, or whose professional depth synergizes well with yours, can help keep you at your best."

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