This article first appeared here in May 23, 2010
Four Major Hurdles Faced By Our Jobless Matured PMETs
Written by: Gilbert Goh
According to the latest statistical report on March 2010, our unemployment rate has fallen from the previous quarter of 3.3% to 3.2%.
Employment also rose from 2.990 million to 3.024 million- an increase of 34, 000 jobs in the first quarter, the third quarterly increase after two quarters of decrease in the first half of 2009 (see Table 1: source mom.gov.sg)
More importantly, of the 34,000-job increase, a sizeable 31,2000 came from the service sector – most probably due to the strong hiring from our two integrated resorts. Manfacturing added another 3,400 jobs to the overall job increase.
Traditionally, these two sectors employ alot of foreign workers due to the lower cost factor and that many Singaporeans tend to shy away from such labour-intensive menial work. It is unsure how many Singaporeans have been employed in these two major job-increase sectors as there is no available data coming from the government.
Table 1: Employment
|Employment Change||Employment Level as at
|1Q 09||2Q 09||3Q 09||4Q 09||1Q 10P|
P: Preliminary estimates
*: Total includes agriculture, fishing, quarrying, utilities and sewerage & waste management
Data may not add up due to rounding
A total of 1,500 workers were also retrenched and 500 contracts terminated during this period resulting in a total number of 2, 100 workers made redundant (see Table 2). This was comparable to the 2,220 workers made redundant in the previous quarter and was only 16% of the record 12,760 workers affected in the first quarter of 2009.
Table 2: Redundancy
|1Q 09||2Q 09||3Q 09||4Q 09||1Q 10P|
|Early Release of Contract Workers||1,860||810||350||250||500|
Unemployed Middle-Aged PMETs
Contrary to the uplifting economic recovery, I have been receiving alot of emails lately from PMETs seeking career advice from our organisation.
Many of them belonged to the vulnerable age group of 40s – 50s. Many are also breadwinners with young dependents and a home mortgage to boot.
It seems that even the recent economic boost of a double-digit growth could not arrest the escalating unemployment trend of our middle-aged PMETs. Many of these PMETs come armed with impressive degrees and a few accompanied by MBAs. Their resumes glowed with decades of working experience in senior positions but sadly they remained jobless for many months some even for more than a year.
It is amazing to see that no employer is willing to take them on board even though they have slash their asking price by more than half of their former last-drawn salary.
One PMET previously working in the construction industry as a business consultant told me he managed to find work in a non-profit organisation after pulling some strings. His pay was a mere 25% of his last drawn salary and he is on a contractual basis.
“What can I do Gilbert?” he lamented. “I am already 59 years old.”
Under employment is also a major issue here as experienced middle-aged PMETs watered down their resume in the hope of getting a lower position on offer. They also know that senior managers conducting the job interview will feel threatened if they employ someone with better qualifications and work experience than them.
Sensing that their own country is not appreciative of their skills and knowledge, many PMETs have decided to work and live abroad when the opportunity arises. We all know too well by now that recently more than 5,000 Singaporeans have apply to migrate to New Zealand in the quest for a better future. I have not seen so many Singaporeans trying their best to flee the country until now.
The recent total demise of our semi-conductor manufacturing industry is also to be blamed for putting many engineers off work as companies resettled in cheaper neighbouring countries.
Many engineers have to retool and switch over to a brand new career. Those who could not transit smoothly due to personal reasons take up commission jobs in the property and insurance careers. A few have no choice but to take up cab driving just to survive. Many have also downgrade their portfolio and expectations in the hope to continue working in our job-scarce economy.
What is exactly wrong with our modern economy right now and why are our middle-aged PMETs continue to face re-employment setbacks when they are so well educated and loaded with solid working experience?
1, Lack of legislation
There is a lack of adequate legislation protecting our middle-aged jobless workers from being re-hired.
In Singapore, many people know that their re-employment opportunities will be severely restricted if they are retrenched in their forties. After fifty, it is almost impossible to be re-hired and one should either switch to become a consultant or simply plan for early retirement.
Employers have all along prefer younger workers for various corporate reasons and executives above the age of 40 years old face increasing pressure at re-employment. It is painful to see many middle-aged executives lowering their expectations drastically in the hope of trying to get back to the workforce.
It is as if hiring an older worker is a hindrance and disadvantage.
Discriminatory hiring has being going on for many years here but, unfortunately so far, there is a lack of legislation to prevent such exploitation. Companies continue to hire discriminately base on age, gender and even race at the expense of our local workers.
Companies continue to advertise using discriminatory terms such as Mandarin-speaking only, below 50 years old need apply, female working environment among others.
The Minstry of Manpower (MOM) has yet to show its legislative teeth by clamping down on discriminatory advertisement prevalent in the newspaper and online media.
There is also little that the worker can do if he is not hired based on grounds of discrimination. He simply shakes his head and move on to another hopefully fairer employer.
In other advanced developed countries, you can actually file a complaint to the relevant governing body if you can find evidence of discriminatory hiring. There are also proper guidelines on recruitment advertising so that you are hired based strictly on two merits: your work experience and educational qualifications. You can leave out your age, race, gender, and photograph from your resume.
Some recruiters have also told me that senior executives are apprehensive of employing well-educated experienced PMETs who may be rather unteachable and can even later take over their jobs at the work place when they have learn the ropes.
I find that such fears are unfounded and reflect badly on the insecurities of our senior corporate staff. If a senior manager has such fear, he should not even be in his current position as he lacks confidence in his own work perfomance.
Singapore has struggled with the decade-long problem of re-employing middle-aged workers and unless legislation is enforced stringently, my fear is that the pool of unemployed PMETs will grow unabated resulting in severe adverse social implication.
We all know too well that when the breadwinner goes out of work, the family faces financial stress and marriages may even break up as a result.
2. The foreign worker factor
One in three workers in Singapore now is a foreigner and for a small economy like ours, this is a big concern as there may not be enough jobs to go around.
More crucially, the foreigner worker who comes here alone can take on any job with a much reduced salary compared to the local worker saddled with family obligations and mortgage repayment.
Previously, we use to have two kinds of foreign workers in our country.
One is the unskilled blue-collared foreigner who will do all the work that most Singaporeans shy away from. They are our construction workers who toil away under the sun laying bricks to build our skyscrapers and gleaming shopping centres.
They also slog away at our many manufacturing plants laboriously poring over PCB boards for around $800 a month. They are accepted and even welcomed by our local population l as they do not pose any competition to the majority of our local workforce. Without them, we will not be able to stay in our gleaming HDB flats and shop in comfort at the many mega shopping malls dotting our country. Their contributions are significant to say the least.
The other kind is the white-collared professionals who come in as expatriates and they are here to make up for the critical skills shortage faced by our local talents. They have attractive pay packages and are brought in rotationally by their corporations. Their contributions are well received as most multi national companies will not be able to operate here without their presence and talents. This group is also welcomed and their contributions are enormous and crucial to our economy.
Now, we have the third foreign group: the in-between foreign talent. They are here to take over the positions of our mid-range executives and managers and is seen as an unwelcomed competition for jobs.
They can take over any positions in the office ranging from the front desk receptionist to the back end junior officer.
In fact, local workers feel that the S-Pass work permit holder will be the one to fear the most. They are the ones that can replace anyone in the office. Thousands of local workers were retrenched during the past few years and employers seek to reduce cost by hiring cheaper foreigner workers.
Employers will understandably continue to exploit the foreigner S-Pass work permit quota when they are face with a vacant position in the work place. In any business set up, acquiring profits will be the supreme corporate mission and there is no mercy here. To The employer, a worker is here to produce a piece of work and there is no loyalty or patriotism.
Right now, any employer can hire foreign workers if they are willing to pay a minimum salary of $1, 800 excluding the monthly worker levy up to a certain quota base on industry type. This is often cheaper than hiring a local worker who can cost anything from $2,000 – $2,500 for an executive position excluding CPF contribution.
To the tertiary-educated graduate with a few years of work experience and a family to support, anything less than $2500 will be a financial struggle even if his spouse is working.
For the employers, at the affordable cost of $1, 800 a month, he can select graduates from many different countries and some come armed with many years of work experience. The foreign worker is not only well educated, younger but also able to work very hard as he sees this as an excellent opportunity for him to resettle in a first-world environment.
Back home in his third world environment, he is often paid a fraction of the salary that he can earn here. It is almost too good an opportunity to miss even if he earns a initial salary considered low here compared to our local terms. He can start work straight away and later look around for another better job.
For the employer, if he has exhausted all his S-Pass holder quota, for $2,500-a-month salary he can alternatively employ a foreign professional using the Employment Pass (EP) category.
Furthermore, he has no quota here and can employ as many foreigners as he wants – without any restriction.
It is common knowledge by now that foreigners setting up shop here tend to prefer hiring their own kind as they can work together and speak the same kind of lingo. Thus, it is not common for foreign-run companies based here to hire a majority of foreign workers in their offices with local workers forming the minority. Such foreign business setup does not benefit our local workforce here at all.
I feel that the S-Pass work permit category needs a serious tweaking to better protect the welfare of our local workers. Companies should be encouraged to hire Singaporeans first before they resort to staff positions with foreigners. This is done in many developed countries so that local workers are protected.
There is also nothing that the local executive can do to prevent his employer from terminating his service and replacing him with a cheaper foreign worker.
Our unions here are also weakened by the tripartite movement initiated by the government to better protect the well being of our businesses. Even if the dismissed executive brings his case to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to seek recourse, he is often brushed aside or told to seek legal advice. The frustrated executive, wronged at work, often felt helpless that he has no where to turn to seek justice.
3. Obselete Skills of Our Matured PMETs
Many of our middle-aged PMETs were displaced for the first time in their life last year during the major financial crisis. Some even could not send out a proper resume when they began their job search after been retrenched as they were gainfully employed all this while.
Many appeared lost and tried unsuccessfully to return to their old trade.
For those retrenched from the semi-conductor industry, going back to the same trade is almost impossible as it is a sunset industry and many factories have pulled out of Singapore and re-settled in cheaper locations such as Vietnam, China and Thailand.
They face a bleak future as their skills are already obsolete for the new economy and age is also against them. It will take alot of psychological re-adjustment for this group of professionals to retrain and return back to the work force. We all know too well that the older you are the harder it is to adjust and change.
This vulnerable group not only has to lower their expectations drastically but also to take on an entirely different skill set to return to the workforce.
Of course, there are middle-aged PMETs who successfully switched careers and have happily settled down in their new job. They managed to clear the huge salary gap blockage and accepted the big pay cut that came with the career switch.
I remembered that I have to take a $3000 pay cut to convert myself from a successful insurance agent to being a social worker. There is alot of adjustment and the family also went through a period of tension as there is less disposable income to spend.
For those retrenched PMETs who decided to switch to doing something that they are interested in all along, the chances for a successful career shift are very much enhanced.
Many I know have switched to doing social work or teaching in their mid-age as they find the work both meaningful and rewarding. Such emotionally taxing jobs also favour the older workers as they are emotionally stable and dependable.
Nevertheless, many middle-aged PMETS still have real difficulty switching career easily. That is probably why some retrenched executives can go jobless for up to a year with some lasting even longer.
It will be ideal if PMETs try to cultivate multiple sets of skills when they are still working so that in the event of a retrenchment, he can easily switch to another line.
I know many PMETs take up licensing for taxi driving as a back up so that they have something viable to fall back on at least for the interim period until they find something concrete.
4. Lack of unemployment welfare
A lack of unemployment welfare policy has placed the middle-aged PMET into a desperate mode when he goes out of work.
There is no proper safety net here and this is one reason why jobless PMETs turn to any job that they can grab even if its something that they dislike.
For those who are not so fortunate, the waiting period can be devastating and depressive. Many jobless PMETs have entertain thoughts of suicide when the journey seems long and dark with no visible light at the end of the tunnel.
I have seen many professionals who are at a loss on what to do next when they are retrenched. After six months of fruitless job searching, many can turn psychotic and some even need medical attention. Many also give up searching for a job after endless rounds of interviews and rejection.
Prolonged joblessness does snaps at one’s self confidence and esteem rendering the person ineffective and negative. He urgently needs a job so that he can regain back his self esteem but job hunting also requires alot of confidence and optimism and it soon becomes a vicious cycle.
Unemployed middle-aged PMETs, especially those who are the main breadwinner with young dependents, face tremendous pressure at home when their savings dwindle over a long period of joblessness. He needs to continue paying bills when there is no income coming in. Over time, he will turn to borrowing from friends and relatives when his savings turn to almost zero. He also could not job search properly as he is haunted by his desperate financial situation.
Unlike other developed countries that provide unemployment benefit for a season, the Singapore government does not believe in dishing out the dole for the jobless. They are left to fend for themselves with some ending up in tragic consequences.
The government believes that our workers will go lazy and dependent on such welfare handout and have only restrict welfare for the very poor. They forget that these developed countries who provide unemployment benefit has also produce workers with very high productivity. They have in no way allow the unemployment benefit system influences their strong work ethics.
However, some may argue that we have government aid agencies in the form of Community Development t Council providing interim financial assistance to the poor and jobless.
The five Community Development Councils (CDC) here only provide interim financial assistance to those jobless people living in HDB 4-room flats and below and they must have little savings in their bank account.
The application criterion is also very harsh and you need to provide your savings record, CPF account, details of your family income among others for the officer to confirm that you are not out to fleece the system.
You also have to sign a clearance form allowing the CDC to check your financial record follow by a final home visit to ascertain that your house is not too lavishly renovated with expensive electrical appliances.
The financial assistance is normally given for not more than three months and the amount can be anything between $200 – $500 depending on need. Re-application is allowed but approval is done on a case by case basis.
Such stringent application processing has actually frighten many genuine aid seekers from coming forward and for face-conscious Singaporeans, many will shy away from approaching the CDC for any financial assistance even though they are in dire straits.
Naturally, the PMETs are excluded due to the strict application criterion here unless he stays in a HDB 4-room flat and below and has little savings in his bank account. His working spouse must also not earn above a certain salary scale in order for him to qualify for the hand out.
During the previous recession in 2001, there is suggestion of a unemployment insurance plan whereby the worker will buy insurance to provide him a sum of money when he goes jobless.
The idea was however shot down and the usual reason was given – our workers will turn lazy and too dependent on such handout.
Our government aid agencies, supposed to assist the matured jobless PMETs, are also clueless as to what to do with them besides providing them with motivational workshops and some training courses.
Career consultants are also not trained sufficiently to do career coaching and may be more suited to help the lower end workers to find jobs.
Many PMETs were frustrated when they seek assistance at CDCs and WDA as they were given the merry-go-round. They were also made to take courses that do not really benefit them much.
PMETs naturally are more demanding of the counsellors because of their qualifications and long corporate work experience. More can be done perhaps to ensure that better-trained career counsellors are available to help this vulerable group of jobless professionals.
As our economy evolves and most of the jobs created come from the service sector, more can be done perhaps in the work restructuring area to attract our local workers to such jobs.
Salaries can then be improved as employers expect more productivity from our local workers.
With more local workers available for employment in the service sector, hopefully we will lessen our dependence on foreign workers.
Proper legislation also needs to be in place so that our matured workers are protected and can make a decent living in our own country. The S-Pass work permit quota needs to be further adjusted so that employers do not have an easy excuse not to hire our local workers.
If not, we will continue to see a growing segment of our population feeling sidelined and agitated. This can only mean adverse social implications for the whole country.Number of View: 2229