SINGAPORE: For nine years, Hairul Firdaus supervised the installation of audio-visual equipment.
When COVID-19 hit, the company's projects started drying up. At the height of the pandemic in June, the 36-year-old lost his job as assistant project manager.
“I went back home, sat down and tried to gather my thoughts and bring myself up because it was really an emotional experience for me,” he said.
With companies scaling back in June, Hairul said he was unable to find another job in the audio-visual industry despite sending dozens of applications for over a month, and had to turn to the gig economy.
"The AV industry is a very specialised trade, so it is not really a broad experience that I can give to any other industries," said Hairul.
"I could not land a job. So after much contemplation, I decided to jump on the delivery platform against my preferences. But that was needed to sustain my household," he added.
Professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) like Hairul have been badly affected by retrenchments, with latest Manpower Ministry figures reporting that this group of workers made up 45 per cent of retrenchments in the second quarter of the year.
Even before COVID-19, PMET jobs had been under significant pressure due to technological disruptions.
The global work-from-home arrangement amid the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of digitalisation, and encouraged the trend of companies outsourcing services to lower-cost countries.
DBS Senior Economist Irvin Seah said that those in lower-skilled PMET jobs are the most affected.
These include roles such as administrative positions, simpler accounting services, and other jobs that can be taken over by artificial intelligence.
Sophisticated PMET jobs will be also increasingly be axed, said Mr Seah, warning that no industry will be spared.
“AI and machine learning will be a significant disruption to PMET jobs, and increasingly will affect jobs with a higher level of skills,” said Mr Seah.
“Disruptions from technological changes cut across almost every industry. The impact will be disproportionately larger for those in sunset industries. PMETs will have to urgently upskill to avoid redundancy in the job market. ”
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ADAPTING TO CHANGES
For Hairul, his job situation changed after he approached Workforce Singapore’s career coaching services. A career coach helped to polish his resume and introduced him to sponsored online information technology (IT) courses.
Coupled with transferable project management skills, Hairul landed a project engineer role in the growing IT industry last month.
“I was quite shocked because Red Technologies is a different industry from my background ... In that I have nothing to offer, so during the interview I thought I flunked,” said Hairul.
“The process of getting my knowledge in the IT industry requires quite a steep learning curve. But I pushed on because this is a requirement in my new job.”
PMETS NEED NEW SKILLS; GOVERNMENT SUPPORT IMPORTANT
As more jobs are redesigned, it is imperative that the Government provides support to upskill PMETs, said DBS' Mr Seah.
“The earlier we can recognise the impact and put in place policy measures to support the transition, upskilling, reskilling, the better,” said Mr Seah.
Dr Jaclyn Lee, who is chief HR officer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), echoed this sentiment, stressing that job matching agencies are key in helping prevent PMETs from being demotivated after a certain period of unemployment.
"PMETs need a lot of continuous skills upgrading. There is a big skills gap between our current PMETs and the skills required. The innovation economy is going to result in a new form of human capital that lies in creating talent and multidisciplinary capabilities," she said.
Already, a slew of programmes targeted have been rolled out by NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) and Workforce Singapore (WSG), the most recent being a new Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) to help 300 mid-career PMETs enter the biomedical science sector.
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SOME SECTORS ARE STILL HIRING
Amid COVID-19, some sectors are still hiring PMETs.
Ammar Hassanbhai, 41, is one PMET who has joined the growing biomedical sciences sector.
Originally a researcher in academia, he did a nine-month Medical Technological Engineer PCP to bridge the gap in knowledge.
As part of the programme, Ammar was placed in Osteopore, a small- and medium-size enterprise (SME) that manufactures 3D implants to assist bone healing. He is now a Quality Assurance Manager at the company.
“I think the most important thing is to have confidence in your own ability, and to be able to know that the skills that you have picked up, though it's in a different industry, are actually quite transferable and can bring value to your new position," said Ammar.
"Of course there are gaps in knowledge. No one can claim to know everything. The Government support and PCP programmes have led to me being able to fill those gaps," he added.
Osteopore said that it has filled six other PMET roles since the start of the year and is still looking to hire.
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E-commerce is another industry that is blazing ahead.
With e-commerce set to see double-digit growth in Southeast Asia over the next decade, firms are riding the digital wave.
SingPost said it has seen a sharp increase in e-commerce deliveries since the start of the year, partly due to companies implementing work-from-home arrangements. Going forward, it is shifting focus to tap on the uptrend.
The firm has hired more than 200 employees since the circuit breaker in April.
While the majority are rank-and-file workers to facilitate its postal operations, 20 per cent are PMET roles, according to SingPost’s chief human resources officer, Ken Wong.
“We are looking at people with digital expertise, data analytics, technology, design thinking, UI UX Process Excellence. That's one aspect of it," said Mr Wong.
"But increasingly, we are looking at individuals with higher tolerances for dealing with ambiguity, navigating uncertainty, ability to innovate, conceptualise, synthesise, as well as story-tell with data," he added.
Meanwhile, other high-growth sectors such as the precision engineering industry, food service and manufacturing industries are also looking to hire PMETs.
The Ministry of Manpower said earlier this month that nearly 1,500 jobs, traineeships, attachments and training opportunities have been made available by more than 270 precision engineering firms under the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package since April, as the industry continued to grow despite the current pandemic-fueled downturn.
Jobs made up the bulk of the opportunities, with 750 being PMET roles and 230 for non-PMETs, said the ministry.
More than 800 companies in the food sector have also offered about 6,700 opportunities in jobs, traineeships and training places since April.
Of these, 5,420 have been for jobs, of which 2,070 (about 38 per cent) have been for PMET roles. These include roles such as food technologists, chefs and business development managers.