Sunday 14 July 2013

Are Singaporean workers... expensive & entitled?

These are the charges some employers have levelled against locals in a recent debate over wages and skills. Robin Chan investigates.
The Straits Times, 13 Jul 2013

A YOUNG university graduate walks into his first job interview at a shipping firm waving a salary survey his school provided for him and demands a starting salary above $4,000.

But that is what a more senior employee gets only after three to four years on the job.

Another, applying for an analyst position at an investment bank, asks if he will have his own office and secretary.

There are others: Singaporean professionals turning down overseas postings, job-hopping with a vengeance or wanting more benefits and less work.

These stories of professionals behaving badly have emerged in the wake of a Sunday Times commentary last month in which a multinational corporation (MNC) boss asked: "Do Singaporeans deserve the salaries they are paid?"

They lack the skills, and the hunger, he observed.

The article sparked much discussion, with readers writing in worried that the new generation might be too soft and lack the skills to keep up in the global contest of talent.

Others empathised with the plight of the Singaporean worker, saying salaries need to rise faster to keep up with the high cost of living.

There does seem a growing perception that the Singaporean employee is getting more demanding and less deserving of his pay. But are the criticisms justified? Or are these Singaporeans just misunderstood?

Common complaints

CERTAINLY, there is no lack of gripes about the Singaporean worker. The more than 10 employers, headhunters and human resource experts The Straits Times spoke to mostly agreed that some of the criticisms are deserved.

Mr Chan Chong Beng, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (Asme) and the founder of interior design firm Goodrich Global, says he finds foreign professionals much more motivated at work.

"The foreigner is worried that you don't give him work," he says. "The Singaporean is worried that he has too much work! The foreigners are also actually more committed to their work, that is the general consensus within my company."

Mr V. S. Kumar, managing director of local courier company Network Express Courier Services, says Singaporean workers only seem motivated just to do enough and have no qualms about dropping everything and leaving on the dot at 5.30pm every day.

However, his staff from India, the Philippines and Vietnam are keen to stay back after office hours to learn new skills.

Others criticised Singaporeans for lacking communication skills.

One consultant from the United States says his Singaporean team members tend to be more quiet during team meetings and conference calls with clients.

Mr Na Boon Chong, managing director at HR consultancy Aon Hewitt, says: "If you're talking about the ability to present their ideas, to communicate, then, in general, local PMETs are behind their Western counterparts. The differences might be down to culture and the respective education systems."

When they do speak up, however, it is to demand things such as more work-life balance and faster promotions.

Mr Asothan Samynathan, general manager of Ark Vision Spare and Engineering, a distributor of marine equipment, says: "Singaporeans are quite impatient and want to become managers and above in a short time."

In MNCs where overseas assignments and postings are common, Singaporeans have also tended to be more resistant to being moved, the employers say.

Mr Peter Baker, director of human resources at shipping firm Maersk Line in the Asia-Pacific region, says: "People from countries like Vietnam, China, Indonesia or Australia are more willing to move away, whereas Singaporeans, historically, have been less willing to move outside of Singapore."

What do employees think about all this?

Some found the criticisms unfounded or an over-generalisation. National University of Singapore (NUS) student Claudio Chock, 24, who is set to graduate with an arts degree, says: "It is very subjective. There may be some who lack communication skills, but there are others, too, who do have the soft skills."

Others say Singapore workers may be falling behind foreign co-workers. An assistant manager at OCBC bank, Mr Gary Hoon, 25, says there "is a basis of truth" that it has been relatively easier for Singaporeans in the past five to 10 years.

But he says a bit of perspective is needed: "Comparing the entire Singaporean workforce with this small select group of employees who left their home country to make it into another country to work here, naturally they would be more driven."

Another, who gave his name only as Mr Toh, 34, and is now self-employed after leaving a job in sales at an MNC, feels it is only fair that a salary should reflect the amount of work put into the job.

But he adds Singaporeans probably want more out of a job than before: "I also look at opportunities for personal growth and good mentorship. If a company can't give me what I am looking for, then I'll find a better job."

Generation misaligned?

PERHAPS Singapore has become a victim of its own success.

The much-celebrated rapid economic growth and first-class education has led to a better quality of life for the majority of Singaporeans very quickly.

Just over the last decade, Singapore's per capita gross domestic product rose from $38,865 in 2002 to $65,048 last year.

According to the World Bank, this makes Singapore, on a per head basis, wealthier than Hong Kong and the United States.

The number of degree and diploma holders has surged from 31 per cent of the labour force in 2002 to 48 per cent last year.

Could this affect the hunger and competitive drive?

Indeed, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew once observed: "The spurs are not stuck on the hinds (of Singaporeans). They are part of the herd - why go faster? But when you're lagging behind, you must go faster to catch up with the herd."

With this economic and educational progress has come higher expectations from Singaporeans for a certain quality of life.

Says Mr Toby Fowlston, managing director at recruitment firm Robert Walters Singapore: "Good academic qualifications are not a rite of passage, especially given the ever-increasing numbers of graduates who are hitting high academic standards."

Aon Hewitt's Mr Na, too, has noticed a distinct change in attitude to work: "Where I'm seeing change is in these workers wanting work-life balance instead of just focusing on career progression, the more qualitative aspects.

"The PMET (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) is becoming more assertive about what he or she wants and is more comfortable voicing these concerns. It is very different from 10 to 15 years ago."

Better work-life balance has been a major topic in the Our Singapore Conversation.

A recent survey of 6,000 university students here by consultancy Universum found that the main thing they want from their careers is work-life balance, beating job security, intellectual challenge and an international career.

In the last decade, unemployment has also been remarkably low here, so finding a job or switching jobs has not been difficult.

More than nine in 10 polytechnic and university graduates who entered the job market last year were able to get a job within six months of graduating.

The impact of a tight labour market has also created "an employee's market", says Mr Victor Tay, chief operating officer of the Singapore Business Federation.

"Workers can be a lot choosier, not just with salary, but also the job scope, exposure they will receive and even the location of their offices," he says.

The shortage of workers has also led to a situation where people are prematurely promoted before they reach the necessary performance level, he adds.

A tight labour market - getting tighter with more restrictions on foreign workers - has also inflated wages in some sectors. Salaries do not reflect real productivity-driven growth - straining companies' costs, while further raising expectations of employees.

Dr Richard Arvey, head of the Department of Management and Organisation at NUS Business School, says: "When unemployment is so low that people can hop jobs, that puts pressures on companies to maintain or raise the salaries and it raises expectations of many of the people here."

The latest unemployment rate is 1.9 per cent, and among residents it is 2.9 per cent, both much lower than in the United States and Britain where unemployment has soared. Even compared to other competitive Asian economies such as Hong Kong, where unemployment is 3.4 per cent, and South Korea, where it is 3.2 per cent, it holds up well.

This has been supported by new growth drivers in the form of the integrated resorts, as well as government intervention by way of the Jobs Credit Scheme during the financial crisis, which prompts employers like Goodrich Global's Mr Chan to bemoan that the Singaporean worker is "overprotected" by the Government, leading to a stronger sense of entitlement among workers.

"How will they react when the economy really gets bad?" he wonders.

At the same time, the pursuit of higher salaries is partly because Singaporeans are increasingly worried about maintaining social mobility and their living standards.

Property prices have soared, fuelled by low interest rates and easy money. An influx of foreigners to boost the economy has put a squeeze on resources.

A survey of 1,000 white collar workers in Singapore by recruitment firm Michael Page found their most pressing concern this year to be meeting their growing cost of living with their current salary.

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser at the Institute of Policy Studies says that a younger generation entering the workforce is finding it much more difficult to achieve their aspirations compared to their parents, creating a "misalignment" of expectations with reality when they start to work.

"With rising competition for jobs and rising costs of the big ticket items, they feel that the goal posts have shifted further away," he says.

Regaining its mojo

THERE is no quick fix to helping the Singaporean white-collar worker recover his edge. The answer lies with employers, employees and schools and the need for them to adapt to changing economic circumstances and societal expectations.

In the workplace, HR practices need to evolve to get the best out of the new generation workforce, and retain and develop individuals better, say the experts.

OCBC bank has changed its HR programmes across different generations to allow for leadership development, there are job rotations internationally and any employee who has worked for five years in the company is entitled to a three-month unpaid break, no questions asked, says Ms Jacinta Low, head of HR planning at the bank.

As for improving communication skills and critical thinking, schools could start honing these skills at an earlier age.

More project work at schools that requires teamwork and problem-solving, and public speaking and presentations to build up confidence are all needed, employers suggest.

Schools and employers need to also emphasise and better reward technical skills rather than just academic ones, they say, to encourage Singaporeans to place more emphasis on these abilities.

Many employers also point to overseas experience as doing wonders to a person's development, especially at an early age.

This requires support from schools, parents and a mindset change among Singaporeans themselves.

Improving commuting to workplaces outside the CBD such as Tuas will also help make it easier to attract and retain Singaporeans in a larger variety of sectors.

But all that cannot replace what is perhaps the biggest factor - self-motivation and pride to continually get better.

As living standards and aspirations rise, it is even more of an imperative for the individual Singaporean to strive to improve, to compete and stay relevant.

"You feel the stress of competition, but it is fair game. In this day and age it is unavoidable, and it should spur you on to greater heights," says bank assistant manager Mr Hoon.

What workers say...

Focused on where he wanted to go
By Debbie Lee, The Straits Times, 13 Jul 2013

SOME newbie white-collar job applicants may have lofty salary expectations, but not Mr Toh Tiong Han.

His job as a mechanical engineer at a small business firm started at around $2,000 a month, much less than what most fresh graduates expect these days.

Mr Toh, 28, landed the job three years ago after graduating in bioengineering from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

It was not that he was setting his sights low, but - confounding the stereotype of young folk being less driven - he was intensely focused on where it might take him.

First, it allowed him to do what he was interested in, mechanical engineering in medical devices such as prosthetic limbs. This involved transforming basic ideas into marketable products, giving him useful experience.

Second, while working, he started a master's degree in mechatronics at NUS to gain a specific qualification.

But it was not an easy path - he faced constant pressure from family and friends to switch to a higher-paying job.

However, Mr Toh recalls: "I knew it was difficult to find something else that I really liked, so I was confident about my decision. I ignored them."

Still, juggling work with part-time studies for two years entailed its share of sleepless nights. He did not factor in time spent on project work and experiments, on top of the three nights a week already spent at school.

"Once, to complete my course work, I didn't sleep for the whole night," he said. "I went to work the next day but did not dare sit down because I would fall asleep."

His hard work paid off when he landed a job at a US multinational corporation - which he declines to name - in February. And he got his master's degree this week.

"The MNC offers me job security and the opportunity to go up the career ladder."

Money shouldn't be the top priority
By Debbie Lee, The Straits Times, 13 Jul 2013

HE IS driven and ambitious, but money is not all that Singapore Management University (SMU) graduate Bryan Lee wants.

"Money shouldn't be the biggest priority," he said. "In the short term, an overemphasis on money could lead to a well-paying job, but you may end up sacrificing your family time and personal interests for it."

The 24-year-old, who will be graduating with an accountancy degree later this month, works as a management associate in financial services.

His job involves managing the wealth of high net-worth individuals, and reviewing their portfolios and financial strategies.

Mr Lee's salary is in the $3,000 to $3,500 range, which he describes as "realistic" for what his job involves.

He was offered the full-time position by his boss at the company - a big name in its field which he declined to name - after working part-time for the past three years.

Although he is not new to the company, coming on board full-time has posed several challenges.

"Making the clients have confidence in me is something I have to work on," he said.

"I'm just out of school, and they are a different demographic. They know my boss and colleagues, but I'm a new face."

His university days, however, have primed him to thrive in a competitive workplace.

"People could be in school seven days a week, doing projects and academic work," he said.

However, he has not come across unrealistic salary demands among his peers.

"Even when taking salary into account, we don't take on a job just because it pays well. We have to consider our long-term career goals, such as where we want to be in 10 or 15 years' time," he said.

What trouble employers...

Many overestimate their own value
By Lester Wong, The Straits Times, 13 Jul 2013

FED up with job-seekers who lack experience yet want high salaries for managerial positions, beverage company Pokka Corporation Singapore is trying a different tactic.

It decided at the end of 2011 to hire Singaporean management trainees with lower salary expectations, whom the company trains from scratch. These trainees ask for a $3,000 monthly salary, compared to $5,000 to $6,000 by applicants with a few years' experience.

Pokka's group chief operating officer and managing director Alain Ong said hiring Singaporeans for professional and managerial roles at a reasonable salary is difficult. He explained: "Beverages move quickly off the shelves, new products are always coming out. It is more demanding than luxury goods or electronics. Potential employees know this and ask for unrealistic salaries."

When Mr Ong, 38, started out in the industry 13 years ago, the monthly salary for a key account manager was around $4,000. "These days, (they) seek the salary of a department head - $7,000 to $8,000 - with only three to four years' experience."

On hiring trainees who lack the experience of more senior candidates, he said "salary is not their only consideration. The priority is learning and some even asked if we are sending them for training programmes".

As for the new generation of PMET workers who "have a different mindset; they want a work-life balance, to go to the gym, and don't believe in working late constantly", Mr Ong emphasised it was still important to engage them.

"Like it or not, the Gen Y workers will form the main working force for years to come and it is of paramount importance for companies to start understanding them and adopt the right HR strategies to tap their potential."

Job seekers today do the interviewing
By Lester Wong, The Straits Times, 13 Jul 2013

WHEN Mr V.S. Kumar first landed work as a dispatch rider in 1982, he was just happy to have a job.

"A job was like God to us then. But these days, sometimes I feel as if I am not the one interviewing the applicants, but they are interviewing me instead," said the 50-year-old who worked his way up to be managing director and owner of dispatch company Network Express Courier Services, one of the largest locally based courier companies with 185 employees.

Mr Kumar feels that despite this sense of entitlement in the younger generation of job seekers, the high expectations are not always warranted.

He said: "We've had some who apply for a managerial position expecting us to give them a $5,000 salary immediately, just because that was what they received at their previous job. But how would I know what kind of productivity they can deliver?"

New managers at his firm usually start at $3,000 to $4,000 a month. Once hired, some have been a let-down.

Mr Kumar said: "Generally, the new generation of local PMET (professional, manager, executive and technician) workers I've met aren't willing to learn new things. Their excuse for not knowing something is to blame their previous company for not teaching them."

He cited an employee who claimed to be certified in accounting but did not know how to do a goods and services tax report. Mr Kumar contrasted such workers with their foreign counterparts from India, China and the Philippines in the same departments who were "very flexible and stay on after office hours to learn new skills".

He said: "This attitude of people thinking very highly of themselves has to change. I don't mind paying high, but I must know and trust in my workers before I can pay them well."

Need to show you can go global
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 13 Jul 2013

SINGAPOREANS may be well known for their dislike of overseas postings, but the Australian director of human resources for Asia-Pacific at shipping giant Maersk Line has a message for them:

It is vital that you smash that stereotype.

Mr Peter Baker, 43, who has lived in the United States, Taiwan and Bulgaria, said: "Every one of our senior managers, including Singaporeans, has worked across multiple countries.

"We need to help Singaporeans understand it really is mandatory that people have experience outside of their home location... It will make them a very well-rounded business leader."

What he advocates is for more Singaporeans - who have cut their teeth in multinational corporations (MNC) and succeeded - to become role models and mentors to others. This will help to break stereotypes and show others what it takes to climb the ladder in an MNC.

"People need to be able to look and see successful Singaporeans in global companies," Mr Baker said.

Moving overseas is not easy
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 13 Jul 2013

NO WONDER it is difficult getting employees to take up a foreign post - relocating overseas is challenging for Singaporeans, says a top headhunter.

In fact, after having gone through it himself, Mr Gary Lai, 37, who is the managing director of recruitment firm Charterhouse, says he understands the concerns of Singaporeans who do not want to give up a high standard of living here, or prefer to be near their families.

"I've been very unsuccessful in moving Singaporeans overseas," admits Mr Lai, who is married with a six-year-old daughter.

He relocated to Shanghai for a year with another headhunting firm in 2010 before returning home.

Being apart from his elderly parents, and also worries about his marketability if he stayed overseas too long, were concerns for him.

"China is also not the best place to raise a family," he added.

On the difficulties of relocating, he noted that with both husband and wife often working nowadays, the woman's career is just as important as the man's.

This makes it difficult when either one has to give it up to move.

Companies have also found it hard to move Singaporeans to overseas offices because they may cost more, he said, and Singaporeans worry whether their child will fit back into the competitive education system when they return home.

Thus, Singaporeans need a lot more pull factors to relocate, and that is why a company would rather find someone "hungrier" to do the job for less, he said.

In contrast, "it is easy to move anyone from elsewhere to Singapore", with its low taxes and business hub opportunities.

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