Thu, 10 Jul 2003

Job scene changes in Singapore

The Straits Times, Asia News Network, Singapore

The latest unemployment figures are a harbinger of unsettling changes to come. Of the 89,400 unemployed, more than half are white-collar workers. The latest Manpower Ministry labour report shows that of the total number retrenched at the end of March this year, 43 percent were professionals, managers, executive and technicians, and another 26 percent were clerical, sales and service workers. Those with degrees took the longest to find new jobs, typically longer than half a year.

As Allen Pathmarajah, chairman of Singapore Professionals' and Executives' Cooperative, says, this is just the beginning of the end of white-collar supremacy in the job market. No longer will a tertiary education or being higher up in the food chain buy immunity against the ravaging forces of globalisation, technology and restructuring.

White-collar unemployment is becoming a permanent fixture, more or less. As the permanent rice bowl becomes endangered, the trend of part-time, project, portfolio, contract and interim employment is fast propagating here.

Singapore is seeing a rise in permanent temporary workers, interim executives and portfolio managers. Many of the retrenched or new school-leavers, unable to find regular work, are resorting to temping for S$5 to $12 an hour, a daily rate or on a project basis.

This trend has already taken root in the United States, where about 30 percent of its workforce is employed in "non-standard work arrangements" across a wide range of industries and occupations, from manufacturing, law, accounting, clerical to sales jobs.

It represents a new marketplace reality which Singaporeans will have to adjust to. Paul Heng, founding president of the Asian Association of Career Management Professionals, says employers must provide more of such openings and make them reasonably attractive.

Employees also have to adjust their mental map from a one-job to a multiple-job career. A career is no longer a safe harbour in which one envisions oneself anchoring for the next 10 years, but an adventure on the high seas, involving a series of projects to garner experience, exposure and contacts across industries, companies and countries.

Yet perils of being on a non-permanent payroll here are well- chronicled, as well as much feared. Halimah Yacob, assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, notes that workers will be expected to shoulder more of the risks associated with enterprise. It will also weaken the employment relationship, reducing it to a cut-and-dried commercial contract which provides less opportunity to build up a career, enjoy wage growth or receive training.

However, the upsides, though invaluable, are less well-known. Heng says a high-sea adventurer will acquire an impressive portfolio of diverse skills, industry knowledge, working experience and networking contacts.

Such will render him far more employable than someone who is strait-jacketed into one industry track early on, and whose domain knowledge loses relevance over time. His winning edge would be his fleet-footed ability to rise to new challenges. And in these volatile times, adaptability on paper is probably the only qualification that will assure anyone of life-long employment.