SINGAPORE: Bank executive James Ng* was retrenched this May when his job at an American bank got offshored to a cheaper country. The 26-year-old had been processing credit card applications at the bank for three years when he was laid off.
“I wasn’t too surprised (by the retrenchment) because my job scope was being reduced as the workload increased for the team in the offshored country,” he said, adding that his last duties at the bank consisted of training colleagues in the Philippines to do his job.
Mr Ng, an economics and finance graduate from a local private university, counts himself lucky that he landed a new job about a month after retrenchment.
But his story is far from unique. Recent statistics from the Manpower Ministry reveal that the unemployment rate among degree holders rose to 4.3 per cent as of June, its highest level since 2009.
SINGAPORE’S RESIDENT UNEMPLOYMENT RATE BY EDUCATION
In June, the unemployment rate for degree holders rose the most on a year-on-year basis. (Graph: Ministry of Manpower Labour Market Report for Q2 2016)
As the economy slows and order books dry up, early-career professionals - especially in trade-dependent sectors - tell Channel NewsAsia that they are learning just how vulnerable their positions are.
“The younger ones got retrenched first, in my case. This is because the seniors are the ones who contribute to revenue,” said Desmond Kok*, 28, who was retrenched by National Oilwell Varco in May.
At the time, the mechanical engineering graduate from National University of Singapore (NUS) was less than halfway into his four-year trainee programme with the US oil and gas firm.
After retrenchment, Mr Kok said he took four months before he found a sales and business development job in the software industry.
“I wasted two months applying to blue chip companies and multinationals. It was only after I went for the second-tier companies then the number of (callbacks for) interviews increased.”
The rise in the unemployment rate among degree holders is also accompanied by an increase in the youth unemployment rate, which tracks those below 30. This rose to 7.1 per cent in June, up from 3.8 per cent in March.
However, the June spike is a seasonal one, driven by fresh graduates entering the job market and students looking for vacation jobs. On an annual basis, the resident unemployment rate for those below 30 has hovered around 5 per cent over the last four years.
“I have friends around me who are in the same situation. For those who have found jobs, they have settled for a contract position or for lower pay. And even so, the competition is stiff, with many more experienced professionals are out there looking for jobs too,” said Mr Ng.
Director of the Centre for Future-ready Graduates at the NUS, Ms Crystal Lim Leahy said her students tell her they feel the world is becoming “hyper-competitive”, as there are more graduates in the labour market than ever before.
To differentiate themselves from other degree holders that have similar "hard skills", job seekers – particularly fresh graduates – need to cultivate their "soft skills" such as self-awareness, empathy and resilience, Ms Lim Leahy said.
The NUS repositioned its Career Centre as the Centre for Future-ready Graduates in 2014. (Photo: Hetty Musfirah)
“One example of an (interview) question we’re seeing that we didn’t use to see in the past is: ‘Tell me about your biggest failure’. Questions like these are meant to tease out their values and uncover their thinking,” she said, adding that students should understand their strengths and look to link it back to the question, instead of memorising template interview questions and answers.
Against the tougher backdrop, labour MP Patrick Tay, who is also the director of National Trades Union Congress' (NTUC) Professional, Managers and Executives (PME) Unit, told Channel NewsAsia that PMEs need to embrace change.
“We need to deepen existing capabilities, develop new competencies and stay ahead of the competition … The new mantra is no longer ‘learn, work and retire’, but ‘learn, work, learn, work, learn, work and retire’,” he said.
RETRENCHMENT CAME AS A “HUGE SURPRISE”
While those in the banking and oil and gas sectors had a sense of foreboding of what was to come as jobs were cut globally, one young e-commerce professional said his retrenchment came as a “huge surprise”, with no notice given.
“There was no prior warning before it happened, and everyone reported to work as usual on that day. After the news was announced we were told to leave that same day,” said Bart Seah*, adding that he did receive proper severance in lieu of notice.
The 27-year-old media and communications major, who graduated from an Australian university, was just eight months into his copywriting job at online retailer Ensogo when he got the axe. He hopes retrenching companies extend more support to employees.
“Initially, my ex-bosses did put in effort to help me get in touch with their contacts (to aid my job search) ... But eventually the opportunities came and went, and I had to start looking for new jobs myself through various job portals,” said Mr Seah.
“It was frustrating because jobs in e-commerce seem to be unstable, and looking for a similar role in other sectors was challenging due to a lack of experience.”
A job seeker at a career fair organised by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency. (Photo: Loke Kok Fai)
Like bank executive Mr Ng and engineer Mr Kok, Mr Seah was let go from his first job out of university.
Although all three found jobs within four months after retrenchment and did not have to suffer deep pay cuts, they feel early-career professionals like themselves tend to fall through the cracks, because universities prioritise placing graduating students while Government agencies tend to be more preoccupied with assisting older workers.
“You’re pretty much on your own,” said Mr Kok, who admits his current role is far from his dream job. “The pay is low, so I’m waiting for a better opportunity to come along. But at least I have a job now.”
**NB: The names in this article have been changed as one of the retrenched PMEs is bound by a non-disclosure agreement with his former employer, and only spoke to Channel NewsAsia on condition of anonymity. The other two requested not to be identified.