Career growth: what exactly is it? For many in Singapore, career growth is associated with climbing the career ladder after they leave school, with the aim to be in a comfortable and secure job leading a team, which pays reasonably big bucks for luxuries of life and also allows one to save for retirement.
As such, over time, Singaporeans have also started to place a premium on intellectual “head” work over “hands-on” technical jobs or even “heart” work such as services and community care roles. This is because such positions are associated with unattractive pay, longer work hours, physically strenuous job scopes, or shift work.
This can be seen in a recent study by the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).
They surveyed 1,010 Singaporeans in the workforce aged 21 to 84 in October 2022. They found that more than 60% of professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMET) felt that they had found meaningful careers, with their work making a positive difference in the world.
On the other hand, only around 40% of non-PMET workers felt the same!
Sentiments like these have begun to worry Singaporean leaders, as this has also led to a growing difference in salaries between workers of different educational backgrounds.
One of the researchers for the NUS study, senior research fellow Dr Chew Han Ei, reflected to CNA that these results reflected society, adding: “This is that point in the findings, where we don’t really value the ‘hand and heart work’.
“Sometimes, it reflects in the opinions of the workers in these professions because their work is not valued by society as much, so it may seem like their careers are not as meaningful.”
In addition, Singaporeans have also tended to prize a linear route to career progression, expecting that their chosen career will start from an executive position and, over time, lead to a managerial path as they gain experience and seniority.
But will the very nature of the corporate ladder even remain the same in this age of digitalisation and change, and what will career success really be?
Song Zhaoli, an associate professor at the Department of Management & Organisation at NUS Business School, shared with Workipedia at MyCareersFuture: “This (linear) mentality is very deeply rooted in the Singapore workforce, not only among individuals workers but even public and private organisations and companies.
“When I read skills framework handbooks developed for over 30 local industries and occupations recently, they all promoted a linear career trajectory.”
He also shared advice on what it really means to build career resilience and the advantages that will give Singaporean workers with that trait.
“In the long run, the boundaries across industries and occupations will become fuzzier, and those with cross-industry and cross-occupation experiences, and non-linear and disruptive career pathways will have an advantage.”
Redefining career success and what jobs are “good and bad”
Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong shared the importance of ‘hand and heart work’ to Singapore at an economic policy forum in 2022, saying: “We must move away from preconceptions that academic success should be prized above all others.
“Instead, we must respect those who labour with their hands and hearts and confer upon them the same status as other paths.”
He added that ultimately in Singapore, people will be accorded recognition for their skills, given opportunities to advance and rewarded for their efforts, as long as they work hard and continually upskill, no matter which path they take.
He was also concerned about the widening gap between the starting salaries of graduates from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), polytechnics and universities, noting that the median starting salary for a university graduate is now almost twice an ITE graduate.
DPM Wong said: “While some difference is understandable, too wide a gap can lead to problematic outcomes.
“For example, some may choose not to enter vocations they have been trained for, or may feel pressured to pursue a degree just to get the credentials, even if it is not aligned with their strengths or interests.
“It also becomes harder to match the right persons with the right skills to the right jobs. And all these compounds the sense of a continuous rat race and paper chase, adding to the worries and anxieties of Singaporeans.”
This gap only further increases over their career, which is why the government has set out minimum salary levels for local workers before companies can hire migrant manpower, as well as a Progressive Wage Model (PWM) for lower-income workers.
The PWM currently covers local workers in the cleaning, security, landscape, lift, and retail industries. Still, the government will continue to expand it to cover more areas with lower-wage jobs.
DPM Wong said: “Besides the progressive wage model, we must look at the next tier of jobs, which includes many associate professionals and technicians.”
However, DPM Wong believes a wider change in our economy is necessary.
“There is a need for painstaking effort, industry by industry, to look at ways to redesign jobs and raise productivity, to upgrade skills and establish better career progression for workers,” he said.
But workers themselves must also find the initiative and lose a complacent mindset to seize these opportunities. In 2021, only one in three workers were motivated to reskill and upskill, with only 27% requesting their employers to provide more reskilling opportunities, according to a report by global recruitment agency Randstad.
Such mentalities need to go, especially with the nature of jobs changing. DPM Wong said at the NUS IPS Singapore Perspectives Conference in January 2023: “Those with the right skills will be able to seize the opportunities and enjoy tremendous rewards, while those who are unable to adjust and adapt will certainly face more challenges.”
In addition, Singapore workers also need to keep upskilling and move away from the notion of cushy jobs, or staying happily at their current companies till retirement.
DPM Wong concluded: “These days, most workers now will have multiple careers in their lifetimes, even in the rare case of somebody working in the same company throughout their lives, the work they do will likely evolve over time.”
“Naturally, this will create anxieties, especially among older, mid-career workers. They are at greater risk of career disruption, as their skills will be less ‘current’ by definition.
“The fear of being made obsolete is very real for them. It can also be daunting for mid-careers to have to switch to a new field and start from scratch with uncertain prospects. ”
“And that’s why we will review our policies and strengthen our institutions to ensure that work remains a central way for Singaporeans to thrive!”