Job-hunting in a pandemic: Are Singaporeans too entitled? Employers too exploitative?
The recession has forced adjustments on career demands and expectations. The uncertainty is unprecedented, but it has also resurfaced a timeless tussle between employers and job seekers, especially millennials.
SINGAPORE: It is neither salary nor job stability — two things job seekers would probably seek in a recession — that Ee Xuejing will prioritise when she enters the workforce next year.
The 22-year-old communications student, in her last year in university, will look for a supervisor she can trust. After having served her recent internship in corporate sustainability under a “very trusting” supervisor, she desires similar rapport in future workplaces.
With remote working arrangements becoming the norm, the boundaries between work and personal life have also blurred. She says this might put a strain on mental wellness, such as if you feel like you must reply to a text from your supervisor immediately.
To tackle this anxiety, she encourages “having conversations with your supervisor”, which is trickier when mutual trust is lacking.
“It’s difficult (to have these conversations), because as a new hire, we want to establish our credibility,” she adds, referring to the stigma associated with discussing mental health.
READ: COVID-19: One-stop mental health platform launched to match users with resources and helplines
While an older generation may baulk at her job search criteria, especially now, career coaches whom CNA Insider spoke to say millennials and Generation Z skew towards intangibles when building their career. Even in a recession nowhere near its end.
These values, like purpose or autonomy, might come across as entitlement, fussiness, idealism or a lack of gratitude when they manifest in seemingly unrealistic expectations of employers.
At least this is the picture painted by one semi-viral Facebook post on “7 interesting young candidates”. And the question may soon become hard to miss: Are younger job seekers asking for too much?
AN EVERGREEN DEBATE
In late August, Delane Lim, the 35-year-old founder of FutuReady Asia, shared on Facebook his thoughts on the expectations and requests from seven applicants looking for a job with his company.
For example, Local Applicant A “requested not to touch his weekends, and whenever possible to work from home instead of working on site”.
When told he would need to work occasional weekends, and time off in lieu may be given, the candidate “asked for overtime weekend allowance and told (Lim) it is the law”.
Lim concluded that “these young talents are not hungry for a job”, as they are “not willing to be humble and not willing to suffer”.
In the original job posting that was shared with CNA Insider, FutuReady Asia was looking for a training and projects executive, who would “design, prepare and conduct character and leadership programmes, including outdoor learning” among other job responsibilities.
The listing stated the expected salary range: S$2,500 to S$3,600, “depending on experience, scope and personal competency”.
“I still stand by my original (Facebook post),” says Lim.
“However, in hindsight, I could’ve made my intention clearer through better use of words in my post. I should’ve better explained to the seven applicants the challenges that the outdoor (learning) industry is facing.”
With around 7,700 shares to date, his post has reignited an evergreen debate about fussy job seekers versus exploitative employers.
Those who agree with his take say Singaporeans are too demanding, not least in a recession where one should be grateful to have a job.
But many others believe his post represents a “boomer” mentality of hard work, in which non-stop hustling is the only way to prove one’s passion.
As one commenter put it, “It’s not about being hungry for a job. It’s about not being short-changed. Gone are the days when only employers are allowed to have options.”
BEGGARS CAN’T BE CHOOSERS — OR CAN THEY?
That said, it is not as though jobs are springing up. In July, Singapore’s unemployment rate rose to 3 per cent, and employment contracted by a record 129,100 in the first half of 2020, according to Ministry of Manpower data.
Advanced estimates from the Ministry of Trade and Industry in the same month showed that the economy shrunk by 41.2 per cent in the second quarter, sinking the country into a technical recession.
READ: Singapore in technical recession after GDP shrinks 41.2% in Q2 from preceding quarter due to COVID-19
It is a new normal, and anxiety seems to underscore today’s job market.
“Previous financial crises were related to currency. But COVID-19 is a huge health scare, which is prevalent across the world,” says Deepali Chaturvedi, the managing director of executive search firm Kerry Consulting.
“There’s no blueprint for solving it; it gets better, then bad again. We’re all in uncharted territory. Everyone’s doing badly. I think that’s causing a lot more anxiety.”
However, this results in changing, and sometimes conflicting, expectations and demands from both employers and employees, she notes.
While employees face high levels of anxiety from witnessing job losses, invoking a “me first” mentality, employers are looking for “a lot more flexibility, a lot more accountability” in these times, which often means putting the team first instead.
“Everyone has to roll up their sleeves and dig in, chip in, ride through this together. Many employers are short on cash so they don’t have the payroll ability to hire more people,” Chaturvedi adds.
Candidates have to understand that these are uncertain times, so they need to be agile and adaptable to changing circumstances. You can’t be stuck in a box.
But meeting in the middle also requires employers to give recognition and, wherever possible, the right reward so that employees feel valued.
Even if the pandemic means scaling down salary expectations for a few years, many are focused on what they see as the big picture.
Increasingly, many young job seekers seek out a company that makes them feel “nourished and appreciated” for their “whole package” as a person, says career coach Chua Ruo Mei, whose clients comprise mainly millennials.
They believe their age is an asset, not a liability. Not for them is the “lord versus serf” mindset, where employees are expected to be grateful just to have a job, adds the 34-year-old.
Moreover, young job seekers do not prioritise linear career progression as much as their older peers.
The younger generation treats their career as a jungle gym instead, where they can “climb up, move sideways, climb down again or climb into a totally different playground”, says Cindi Wirawan, another career coach to millennials.
The 33-year-old says this often means younger job seekers seek more mentorship, where they are coached and encouraged to explore their strengths across several avenues, and not micromanaged.
“Many millennials say they’re not getting feedback. They don’t know what’s next. They’re still being managed from the top down, rather than being given a voice. They want employers to guide them and bring out the best in them,” she adds.
SEEKING MEANING, BUT NOT SHIRKING
For undergraduate Ee, a suitable job is about having purpose, and not just about what she can do for a company.
She hopes her future employers will be curious about what she wants to learn and what she values, implying that they value her career aspirations and direction in life.
“It makes the interviewee feel that the company is hiring you as a person and not as a headcount,” she says.
Even if she veers from her goal of working in the sustainability sphere, she would find a way to bring social impact into her eventual job, as meaningful work is a non-negotiable factor.
“For instance, if I get a job at an advertising agency, then I’d see if I can get accounts for non-governmental organisations. I guess there’s also a bit of innovation needed,” she adds.
Chua has seen younger job seekers having these “holistic considerations” like a sense of purpose and autonomy, and this generation sometimes treating their job as “a calling” — which reflects a shift in the meaning ascribed to work.
“They’re strategic. They understand opportunity cost. If I’m going to be working for you for two to three years at least, then what am I sacrificing? Is it worth my time investing here?” she says.
“With that considered decision, when finally on the job — coupled with a suitable degree of autonomy, trust and empowerment from the organisation — don’t be surprised if these job seekers turn out to be some of your most driven, hardworking and innovative star players.”
Other young job seekers believe that old-fashioned hard work is still the most important thing in landing and keeping a job.
Having recently graduated in interactive and digital media from a polytechnic, Nurul Shafeqah is seeking the right company culture and environment while looking for jobs under the SGUnited Traineeships programme. But long hours, to her, are “part and parcel” of working.
“My generation is a little bit ‘strawberry’. You can’t really push them so hard because they’d start talking badly,” says the 21-year-old.
“That’s a mindset that shows you’re not ready for working life. You need to grow up first because not everyone should accommodate you. You should be accommodating to people too.”
She does not need a company that embraces her whole self either.
“Who am I for them to just accept me like that? During COVID, you either lower your standards or you have to find another job,” she reasons. “Lowering your standards is, like, one of the easiest things to do.”
She does not believe her hard work or passion will get taken advantage of, as she knows “when to stop” and when she is “actually being exploited”.
“I’m someone who’s quite vocal, so I’d say when I think a (task) is too hard for me,” she says, adding that her peers should just tell their employer likewise if they have difficulty doing something.
RETRENCHED AND REALIGNING
While salary seems more of a priority for retrenched workers, a recession in a pandemic has not made it the be-all and end-all as expectations are adjusted.
Sharmaine Yeo used to also count company culture and personal interest in the job as the more important factors, but she has rejigged her priorities. Now, the 24-year-old ranks job security as number one.
This came after she lost her job in events management. Hoping to avoid more shock in her life anytime soon, she plans to stay in her current job as a clinic assistant at a private physiotherapy clinic for the foreseeable future.
Like Ee, who will seek a supervisor she can trust, Yeo ultimately wants an employer who is “good at mentoring”, “reliable” and “someone you know you can go to if you have issues”.
But in the meantime, working at the clinic is not an entirely new playing field: She gets to use her interpersonal skills from her events job.
Similarly, Danielle, a retrenched worker in her early 40s who requested anonymity, is willing to take on an executive role even though she had been in a managerial position.
She considers herself a “risk-taker” and would lower her expectations if it means taking on roles to enhance her career.
Having just accepted a one-month administrative job which begins this month, she says retrenched workers should also consider any opportunity, even as a temporary fix — it could be “very depressing” not working for months, as one would have “no direction”.
Companies, however, should not exploit this willingness to learn, she adds. Having conducted hiring interviews herself, she has seen human resource departments “take advantage” of potential employees to get “the best deal for themselves”.
Recalling a HR department that once listed “obedience” as a criterion for new hires, she says, “You need someone who’s able to make certain decisions. You lead, teach and coach, but they have to think independently.”
Where working overtime or long hours is concerned, she stresses the importance of being up front with potential hires before they take the job.
“For example, if you’ve held an events job for three to four years, you’d know how many public holidays you need to waste. So … it’s only fair that you prepare them mentally,” she cites.
You don’t know their family background or lifestyle. They’re not robots.
EMPLOYERS MUST KEEP UP TOO
As career coaches reiterate, top candidates still have options in a recession. To attract the best, employers should understand and accommodate the attitudes of younger job seekers, and even look out for qualities previous generations might have dismissed.
Take, for example, local company Secretlab and its “millennial-majority” staff. The start-up looks for employees who “want to be pioneers”, shares Tham Ying Wen, 28, the company’s talent acquisition lead.
“We’re used to navigating uncharted waters. Individuals need to have a high aptitude and be driven and versatile, as they often need to build on traditional skill sets and adapt,” he says.
Another trait employers look for is the willingness to go the extra mile.
Edward Booty, the 32-year-old founder of digital healthcare social enterprise reach52, does this by looking out for candidates who are fundamentally aligned with its mission to bring healthcare access to rural areas.
Without this, even someone with a perfect set of technical skills would not be hired.
Citing the hypothetical case of an applicant for the post of data scientist, Booty says that going the extra mile could mean taking a dataset, discovering another dataset after doing further research, and then putting both datasets together to deliver a “cooler” model than what the company might have requested.
READ: Challenging job-hunting landscape as recruitment agencies see fewer vacancies and more applications
If a hire ends up being the wrong fit, some employers believe the hiring manager is responsible for the recruitment strategy and for not explaining the job scope clearly.
DollarsAndSense co-founder and managing editor Timothy Ho shares how his company took flak on Reddit for an irreverent and unconventional job ad for an editor during the pandemic.
The company did not state what it was looking for but who it was not looking for instead: Someone who wanted “an extremely structured workload for optimal work-life balance”, “plenty of vacation days spent basking in the sun” and “ultimate freedom of expression and creativity”.
The ad was first used about two years ago, but coupled with the recession and the changing narrative about burnout and work-life balance, it did not sit right with netizens this time.
Like Lim’s Facebook post, the ad was taken as a reflection of exploitative practices among small and medium enterprises in Singapore — never mind that Ho’s team enjoy the flexibility of work-from-home arrangements and also manage their schedule on their own.
Ho’s original intent was to convey the message that writing is “much harder than it sounds”. He did not want applicants “underestimating the difficulty of the job” and thinking it was “a walk in the park”.
“It can be quite tough when we need to explain to our editor that managing a website isn’t a job that can be restricted to official working hours,” he says.
But he acknowledges that “if a hire comes in with that expectation, it’s typically the fault of the hiring manager”.
He is not the only one, however, who thinks a reality check is needed. Chaturvedi from Kerry Consulting finds it “very bizarre” that some candidates, for example, will not accept a job outside the central business district.
“An entitled mindset can be very frustrating for employers. It feels a bit like a child in a candy shop: I want this, I want that, perfect job with perfect salary, perfect title. Give me flexible hours. Give me work from home, a comfortable work environment,” she says.
“Life’s not like that. You need to give something too.”
She ascribes this entitlement partly to Singapore’s high employment rate in the past giving candidates the impression that they can call the shots. In the long run, this view will not do them any favours.
Hustling at the beginning of one’s career to prove one’s worth may still be the key to getting ahead, perhaps even more so now.
“All the stuff I’ve done within the first 10 years of my career has been long hours. I see it paying back … The money you make in the first five to 10 years of your career is nothing compared to the experience you gain,” says Booty.
“If I were a graduate, I’d happily do overtime, and I’d see that as paying back because I’ve got much broader experience. Employment is competitive.”
He acknowledges that not everyone’s personal circumstances or personality will make them suited to getting their hands dirty, and that burnout is a real phenomenon.
But experience has taught him that putting in hard work and long hours within reason does pay off in future. The trick is simple, though easier said than done: Stick it out.