Thursday, May 12, 2005

Tried and tested routes

To become a creative and entrepreneurial economy, Singapore needs to have more people who are willing to take risks. This is the commonly heard rhetoric that I am increasingly tired of hearing. This is not because I do not believe that cultivating a risk-taking culture is the way to go, but rather because there are some serious problems in Singapore, as I see it.

Firstly, it is true that people must change, but there is a specific group of people who needs to change, most of all - the employers and the associated staff (e.g. human resource professionals) who play a part in recruitment of new employees. In Singapore, the mindset of employers is so narrow that in hiring for a particular position, they will usually only consider people with the specific degrees. An extreme example is this: if you are applying for a marketing job, then you had better have a marketing degree; even a business administration degree may be regarded as 'not specialized enough'. This means that people without the specific (or so called 'relevant') degree can forget about 'converting' and entering an industry for which they were not specifically trained.

This problem is related to the second one, which is that many organizations here are reluctant to invest the time and energies required to train newcomers, however talented and intelligent the potential newcomers may be. Organizations often prefer applicants to be 'pre-trained', ready to 'hit the ground running' from Day One. This explains why in the newspapers' Recruitment Section, most of the advertisements state that they want people with 'at least 3-5 years' relevant work experience. But the sad thing is that 'relevance' is too narrowly defined.

The above two problems thus contribute to the third problem, which is the extreme difficulty of changing career paths in Singapore. If you want to be in Industry X, you had better obtain a directly relevant degree and work a number of years without interruption in Industry X (not Industry Y, no matter how synergistic the two may be). The extreme difficulty of changing career paths thus make Singaporeans risk-averse, preferring to always stick with the 'tried and tested routes', as mentioned in the Channel 8 programme on 12th May featuring PM Lee. After all, all diversions will be viewed negatively by employers and so are likely to be fatal for one's career. An interviewer can always ask you sarcastically, 'You don't seem to be very committed to this industry?', or 'What if we hire you and you decide to try out another industry again?', or 'You studied for degree A at university, why are you applying for this job since it is not directly relevant to what you studied?'

A pat on the back by the government commending one for the risk-taking behaviour only serves to console the poor person who is now cast as a reject of the job market, thanks to his risk-taking behaviour. All the talk about studying what you love, being entrepreneurial, and so on will be cast out of the window in the interviewing room. So as I see it, the rhetoric promotes something good ('study what you love', or 'try starting your own business'), but employers need to change and be more willing to accept people with unconventional backgrounds or those who took some time out to do other things. They also need to have more flexible hiring criteria together with a structured training programme that will help smart people from any disciplinary background get acquainted with the industry, as long as they have an interest in it.

The UK chartered accountancy profession does this: they take in and train anybody whom they think is smart and capable, as long as they have a 2nd class (upper) honours degree, regardless of discipline. So even philosophy majors can convert and become chartered accountants (ACAs). The accounting profession thus has a more varied composition, comprising people from diverse backgrounds, which is conducive for creative problem-solving and a more interesting social life within the profession.

So, I see three major problems in Singapore, as far as evolving into the knowledge-based economy is concerned. There are other problems, of course, but the other problems are not the subject of this blog entry.


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