On 2 March 2020, CNA published an article, “The job struggles of some middle-aged Singaporeans, as Government sends more help their way” (https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/middle-aged-singaporeans-job-struggles-big-read-12487700) In it, the author highlighted the plight of several mid-career professionals who have lost their job to restructuring, redundancy or even business closure. Many of these professionals are in the age group of 40 to 50 years, and who have spent their entire working life in about 2 to 3 firms. Unfortunately for them, just when they were at the prime of their career, they had their career momentum snuffed out which sent their growth trajectory tumbling. The saddest part of each of these person’s story is that they either could not find another job, even if they applied for a lower-salaried position, or they had to resort to driving a private hire car.
Some reasons were put forward by the author for this plight, namely:
1. the people had been displaced by technology, and they no longer have the relevant skills to compete in today’s job market;
2. there is reluctance in employers to hire a middle-aged worker at a lower salary because of the fear that he/she might “jump ship” when a better opportunity comes along the way
3. ageism, which is the discrimination of a person simply by his/her age, was also cited, saying that employers prefer a younger worker because they have a longer runway with the company and are, of course, cheaper.
4. being replaced by a foreign talent, despite being Singaporean who has been contributing successfully in the role.
The article ends with a resounding note from a construction company director who said that experience is not as important as skills. “Ultimately, any employer would still want to hire someone who can add value to the work and the culture of the organisation.”
I do believe the last point hits the nail on the head. But let be come back to that later. In all, we can summarise this article based on:
a person’s age
his/her relevant skills
experience, or the lack thereof
Let’s uncover each of these points in more detail
Some companies’ HR practices may need updating because they think that younger employees are “cheaper” and easier to manage than older ones. Some of them believe that older workers are more set in their ways, and are mentally and physically weaker than younger ones. They cannot be further from the truth. Take me, for example. I am 54 years old this year. Yet, every morning, I wake up early – sometimes at 3.30am – and I hit the running track or the gym. I will run for 6.5km in 35 minutes, and then do another 1.5km walk to cool down. I run faster than most 35-year-olds on the track, who find it difficult to keep up with me; either by pace or distance or both. So, this debunks the physically and mentally fit myth. What about the “cheaper” myth? The fact of the matter is that younger workers these days are more prone to jumping ship than older workers. The cost of recruiting and onboarding is very high, by some experts, it costs about $16,000 per year to hire one employee. If this is turned 3 times in a year, that would be $48,000! That works out to $4,000 a month; and that is not even including the salary of the worker! This is just on hiring costs. Use that $4,000 on a more matured and stable employee, and you would gain by keeping those costs at bay!
So, is it cheaper to hire a younger employee? The answer is not so simple. The answer is yes if you can pin down the employee, create a worthwhile working condition, develop the person, give him/her a bigger slice of the game; then perhaps it would be cheaper to hire a younger person. But if you can’t promise all those, then perhaps it would be better to hire a good, experienced person.
2. Relevant skills
This is where it would probably hurt the matured jobseekers. Many of them had been schooled in the 1970s and 1980s, and they very quickly got jobs in the early 1990s when there was no mobile phone technology nor the Internet. The way that businesses operated was very different from now, in terms of concept of operations and in technology. And if these workers did not remain relevant, then they will go the way of the dinosaurs. While the operating language of businesses in the past was Microsoft Office, these days it is R, Python or Java. Now, if you think I am talking coffee, then you are in deep trouble! And if you thought that IoT was only to switch on your lights and aircon while you are on your way back home, then you also have a lot to learn.
If businesses now require these advanced skills to operate, and if you did not have them, how would you expect to be hired? If you cannot operate a piece of machinery remotely, including setup and troubleshooting it miles away, then you will not be able to compete in today’s industry. This is why the government has been advocating upskilling and reskilling as a strategy against redundancy, and where SkillsFuture credits are given to one for such purposes. But if one were to squander the credit to learn how to bake, for example, (unless you want to start a bakery, which would then be handy) then one is as good as not having had any new skills. This makes it difficult for one to be hired since the person would be clueless as to how to work in the business environment.
3. Experience, or the lack thereof
Experience is good, until when it serves no purpose. A person’s experience in lighting gas lamps in the early 1900s is of no value to the electric company. Conversely, a person’s experience in servicing a petrol-driven Toyota will not be useful to a battery-driven motor company like Tesla. So, while experience is important, and it allows us to predict the outcome of events even before those events occur, they are only relevant in the space that the experience is relevant. Take the experience out of its context and it might even hinder the progress of the business. But when a person has diverse experience in diverse fields, then it becomes relevant and much sought-after. One reason why consultants are paid large sums of money is because of the diverse experience they have. This allows them to see the blind spots in one industry as they had seen them in others.
So, does a person who has had 25 years of project cargo experience in the oil and gas industry be relevant to the contract logistics sector? You might be tempted to say yes, but the truth of the matter is that it is not, since they operate in different space, with different stakeholders. So, should you be paid for your 25 years of experience in the contract logistics space? That is the reason why a person’s last-drawn salary is irrelevant when he is looking to work in a new industry because he was paid for relevant experience in the previous industry, but in the new one, he has none. But can a person transfer some of that experience to the new industry? Absolutely! It is up to the person to identify what he can transfer and what value that experience has to the new industry. It is difficult, almost impossible, for the HR and hiring manager in the new industry to uncover what you have that is relevant to them. Hence, if you cannot articulate what you have that is relevant, then don’t expect to be paid what you used to.
This brings me to the penultimate point, your value. It bears repeating what the construction boss said in the article,
“Ultimately, any employer would still want to hire someone who can add value to the work and the culture of the organisation.”
This is very true of all employers. Yet the key words here are “value” and “culture”. Just because you have had 25 years’ experience in the military does not mean you have concomitant experience in, say, defence research; even if there is some domain overlap. In the end, you need to be able to articulate what value you bring to the hiring company. Most companies pay if you can help them bring in more business. You can do that directly by influencing your network to do business with your new company; or you can do that indirectly by helping them build internal capabilities (assuming of course they want what you can deliver!) Either way, if you can assure the company that they can grow through hiring you, then you have value. And that value will be based on what you can contribute to top or bottom line. Which is why when you identify your transferrable experience, you need to put a value to it for the company to decide if it would be worth spending money (by way of salary and benefits) to gain that value. And of course, you know that the benefit to the company must be in multiples of the cost; some say 3-to-1; some even go on to say 10-to-1. That depends on the business, the internal costs, and the industry. But whatever it is, if you cannot articulate your value to the company, it would tantamount to you not having any, despite your number of years of experience.
I have declined to hire very experienced and highly skilled people to my job openings simply because I know they won’t be able to gel with the culture. This is because it takes more than one person to deliver for the team, and if the team dynamics would be destroyed by one high-flying, arrogant, middle-aged egomaniac, then I am sorry, that person is not for me. I will err on the side of caution when it comes to hiring. I would rather reject the right person for the job, than to accept the wrong one who will come and destroy my whole team (for those of you who know, these are Type 1 and Type 2 errors). Of course it would be difficult for us to quantify what the culture is; and some people might even say that it is discriminatory for rejecting a person who is qualified for the job based on something as subjective as culture. Yet, unless you have run your own business unit, unless you have hired the wrong person who came in and destroyed all that you have built from the beginning, unless you have been backstabbed by the one whom you thought was your ally in building the team (as Steve Jobs had found out), then you would not understand the importance of culture. Ultimately, it is still the business leader’s prerogative to hire you or not; and he too would err on the side of caution, I bet.
So, are you restructuring?
This brings us back to the title, are you restructuring? I suppose the answer has to be yes, but more importantly, we need to see HOW we are restructuring. If we are restructuring based on our past successes, our experiences, then we may be in for a lot of heartache when what we have is not what is needed. We therefore need to look to the future; build our base TODAY based on what the world needs 10 or even 20 years ahead. Yes, it takes a little guessing-and-checking, but the process of evolving from today to tomorrow is what will make us valuable. For if you can do it, then you can help your potential company do it too. But never, ever, think that if you are in the age group of 40 to 50 years old, that you are too old to be hired. That is defeatist thinking. As they say, be careful what you wish for! Instead, focus on what will bring value to your target new employer, identify what gaps they may have now, and skill yourself up to meet those skill gaps. Then, it does not matter if you are in your 20s, 30s, 50s, or even 70s! You have the value for a company to want to hire you and retain you.
Now isn’t that what we all want for our career?