18 Dec 2006

Scholars past their prime are in dire straits

Thanks to oviraptor, who pointed me to this post on Sammyboy's forums:

Dec 16, 2006
Don't knock us, our rice bowls are not iron
Military and civil service high-fliers nearing or past their tenures struggle to keep up in corporate world

By Ho Ai Li & Susan Long

A WELL-KNOWN chief executive of a global company here tells how he receives persistent calls from former scholars who have graduated from Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College.

Some are military officers about to hit 45. Others are from the Government's elite administrative service, in their 50s and nearing the end of 10-year tenures.

Some are so desperate to 'sell' themselves that they ask what time he will be in the gym so they can run on the treadmill next to him and make their pitch.

'It's very sad,' observed the CEO, who spoke to The Straits Times on condition of anonymity. 'In Singapore, above 45, you cannot be looking for a job. The job must be looking for you.'

Things are getting tougher for military or civil service high-fliers nearing or past their shelf life. Previously, most were absorbed by government-linked companies (GLCs) or statutory boards when it was time to leave.

But these days, GLCs - which are becoming more bottom-line-driven and moving from passive asset management to aggressive overseas expansion - prefer to hire those who can hit the ground running from Day One. These would be people with experience in global banking, financial services, mergers and acquisitions, leisure entertainment and customer relations.

Unfortunately, those leaving the military and civil service lack that global perspective and struggle to keep up, say corporate observers and recruiters.

According to human resources consultancy Hewitt Associates country head Na Boon Chong: 'The challenge has moved from managing a large organisation to helping guide the company through significant industry changes. The latter requires depth of specific industry experience, which retiring civil servants or military officers often lack.'

Finding them a job in the private sector is also a problem. Singapore's contract manufacturing industry is shrinking and the growth of home-grown companies with pockets deep enough to hire such high-calibre candidates is just not able to keep pace with the conveyor belt of government scholars today. Each year, the public sector gives out about 250 scholarships.

What aggravates matters, said executive headhunter Richard Hoon, is that former military men can be too used to the regimented life.

'Maybe only one out of 100 can adapt to the corporate world. The rest have to work hard and undergo personal coaching to be 'demilitarised',' he said.

'They have a certain bravado, talk in a certain way and have a certain mindset that's not attractive to employers. They used to be officers, always managing others. But stripped of their uniform, they're just ordinary people with a difficult transition to make.'

Many also lack the soft skills so necessary in the business world.

Outplacement specialist Paul Heng said: 'Stories are plentiful about ex-civil servants and army officers who behave as if they are still sitting in their ivory towers, giving orders to the troops. Some are downright patronising.

'They need to inspire confidence in interviewers that, not only can they do the job, but they can also assimilate into the company culture and work well with others.'

The 'cultural re-adaptation' process can take months, even years. As such, this group now competes with the droves of other over-40, out-of-work managers looking for work.

Some complain that while the Government exhorts industry to hire older workers, it is not quite walking the talk itself.

In 1998, the career span of military officers was reduced from 27 to 23 years, meaning that those who joined after 1998 would retire at about 42, instead of about 45 previously.

Since 2000, the Administrative Service has ruled that those appointed to Public Service Leadership jobs will have only 10 years' tenure for each position, such as permanent secretaries, deputy secretaries or chief executives of major statutory boards.

The rationale is to maintain a steady turnover, help the organisation avoid becoming too settled in its ways, and encourage young and capable officers to remain in service and strive for top posts.

What that means, a fast-rising administrative officer said, is that you have to actively work towards your next tenure during your current one.

'If you get promoted to permanent secretary too early, or something goes wrong, you miss a step and can't get to the next level. The conveyor belt of scholars relentlessly moves on and pushes you out. And there you are - yet another out-of-job older worker,' said the officer, who is in his 30s.

His own exit plan? He is banking on regional demand for senior civil servants with deep policy expertise and operational experience.

At 37, another government scholar who is now doing well sometimes worries whether he will be able to survive on the outside in his mid-40s.

'Honestly, a lot of us have no idea what we can do outside,' he said. 'Our rice bowl is not iron or as glamorous as people think it is.

'I know people think we have it made and are so well-trained that we can easily be absorbed into industry. But it's a misperception that needs to be corrected because there's obviously a mismatch between what the public sees and what our potential employers see.'

With the clock ticking away, he has begun finding out how he can get into financial advisory work. He is also managing his expectations downwards and keeping his commitments spare, by not upgrading from his Housing Board flat.

Also cautious is a former government scholarship holder and Cambridge graduate now working as a researcher.

At 45, and having seen the corporate carnage that claimed some of his 40-something peers, he is considering starting a cafe or getting trained to be a masseur.

'In your 40s and 50s, more than at any other time, you need financial stability. Yet, it's the age when you're the most vulnerable,' he said. 'There's a heartless bottom-line economic calculation going on and companies are quite happy to cut you loose.

'The slippery slope to unemployment can start suddenly. It can be one year, one bad move down the road. The tragedy for scholars is that they have always been on an ascending path. The thought of levelling off or falling down is scary.'

But there are stories of courageous and successful transitions too, like that of lieutenant-colonel-turned-entrepreneur Nicholas Koh, 46.

The former deputy head of naval logistics (platform systems) and navy scholar had the option of staying on till 47, but chose to 'bite the bullet early'.

In 2002, at 42, he took a smaller gratuity package and left to join ST Engineering as vice-president of defence business.

'I wanted to get out early and start gaining valuable corporate experience to build my future while I still had energy,' said the father of two teenagers. 'I didn't want to get too used to a comfortable life.'

In 2003, he quit the job that paid around $150,000 a year, took a painful pay cut and set up Victory Knights Management Consultancy.

'It was my baptism of fire. I decided to fight for it out there. No point looking for short-term havens,' he said.

His firm administers a marine technology master's programme offered by the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Last year, it also ventured into Oman, where it helps to incubate environmental technology and property development companies.

'Out there in the commercial world, it's war. Generals and colonels who are able to fight a war should be able to fight for themselves. If they can't, they don't deserve their former rank and status,' he declared.

'Public funds have been used to groom them in the past, so they should come out into society and create new ways to contribute back to Singapore's economy.'

More on this at a later date.


Anonymous said...

Well, serve them right. It's time that they really know down at the ground how the rest of Singaporeans are living.

For the guys being picked at 18yrs old with a scholarship is like a silver spoon in the mouth - until now. I bet most if not all of them have been supporting the PAP and policiies throughout their working life. Voting for the PAP (Poking Asshole Party) at every elections.

Now it's good to see how they feel to get shaft from behind after having given the prime of their life to the causes of PAP. To all these former high fliers, to deserve it, you reap what you sow.

You once consider yourself to be elites. Well, well, let's see how you have fallen or will fall.

Matilah_Singapura said...

Somehow, I find it very difficult to find any sympathy for people who have either earned or been given all the extra "chances" in life — and then blowing it, or failing to "make it happen" for themselves.

If quiet, ordinary folk, with "average" abilities and "average" jobs can get their shit together — raise their families and provide for them, how come these people with "extra special" abilities fuck up?

Apparently we reap what we sow. And people with "victim mentality" reap their comeuppances big time. Serves them right! :-)

And another myth has been highlighted: that being educated in "elite" institutions guarantees one a successful life. Since when did life itself come with any guarantees?

...and why do so many people whine about "how bad life is?" Are there really so many "problems" in the world, that so many people are "victims" — needing help all the time, and beyond hope?

Technology has empowered "average" people, to the point where, by using computers (now cheap) and the latest machine tools (cheaper than previous generations), "average" people can produce goods which in erstwhile times could only be produced by "special" people. We live in times where people in their 20's, who've dropped out of school become billionaires.

A point about "soft skills": the POINT about capitalism is to HELP people, and to make a profit from doing so. As someone with a managerial position — HOW are you going to help people, lead people, cooperate and trade with them if you do not have good social skills? Bearing in mind of course that technology has levelled the playing field somewhat.

We are all in business for ourselves — that is necessary for individual freedom. Those "elites" with flashy degrees are no longer "that special". Those elites who think that they live in a feudal society where being "elite" is a birth right, are in for continual surprises.

Wait for it. It is coming to your political economy real soon: the next generation of Chinese and Indian kids: tech savvy, smart, highly motivated and passionate, with work ethic to scare the shit out of any fat-arsed lazy union leader bum in the US, UK, EU etc.

I can't wait for these young, energetic guys AND gals to kick arse. Innovative people make our lives better by increasing our wealth. I for one, feel no "threat" whatsoever — because I am NOT "elite".

Anonymous said...

Just can't wait to meet one of these former elites. I want to see how well they fare in the "outside" world when they are wean from the usual embrace of their once beloved PAP masters. How the PAP "chosen ones" can manage for themselves in the real world.

Welcome, people, welcome to the world created by PAP.

Anonymous said...

wah, people here so spiteful. Scholars or no scholars, the country needs admin people mah. If they did not do their job, you think you have a place to do your little business and little jobs meh? Come on lah, public admin is service, and if they need to leave and find another job, sure got retraining one lah. Maybe they dont like retraining, or maybe they think only business world to make bigger money than their admin jobs, but either way, can think more wider also right?

aiya, if you have no sympathies then keep quiet loh. Talk so much for what when you have nothing to say? Aiya, maybe elites can think better than you are. Sure lah, maybe not as rich as you. But maybe they see further and know deeper leh. Like when a crazy man rise up, they see it first and then all the rich people get killed. Happened many times you know. So dont be so sure that elites have no specialty ok.

haha, stupid example of chinese and indian kids taking over jobs. Maybe factory workers or low level programmers lah. If you are boss from america, you would put your big responsibility on these people? Cheap not mean anything you know. Must be legitimate also to your own managers ok. Make union mad or make your own people mad, no good for the company. But if they start their own thing in their own countries, maybe different story lah.

highly motivated, passionate or crazy work ethic mean nothing if you dont use brains. These people have brains and alot of fight. But they lack how to relate to the culture of the west, where the money really is loh. Not say got guts and fight can win the war one. Sometimes need diplomacy ok.

aiya, maybe they kick your arse only lah. haha, there are many different types of oxbridge people lah. Some are quite smart, others are lucky and the rest dont know their own minds. Dont put all the rice in one rice bowl ok. There is sushi rice and then there is thai rice. All good rice but different rice. So if you learn from dons how to think, cannot be too bad one. Unless you did not and look to the day of your admin job and nice flat, then maybe this will happen lah. Have not seen a man or woman who study until primary six or sec 4 who seriously take their lessons to think and be mature go hungry these days leh.

overseas singaporean said...

the effect of such an article - is to make the admin service / military service look less attractive (than it already is, some would say) and to make those people in the admin service / military service look more incompetent & undeserving of their huge salaries.
the real question is - why on earth would ST write such a story? was this their intention? or is this some miscalculated attempt at trying to gain sympathy for admin officers / military officers & trying to show that they empathise with the at-large problem of 40 year olds? if so, what a miscalculation!

Matilah_Singapura said...

anonynous 03:45

Yes, the cuntry needs admin people.

Twinings ( a private, family company) has been selling tea for longer than S'pore has been in existence. Talk about building a (global) brand-name, and staying in business for hundreds of years... and guess what? They have had "admin people" since the beginning.

In private enterprise if your "admin people" are not up to scratch, the market will punish you.

The "legal criminals" who work in the public service can cock up, lose public money — and still have a high paying job until they retire.

When a private enterprise makes a mistake, they are "punished" (merely a market signal) by the market. Or in extreme cases, get sued by their customers.

When the state's government makes an error, they stay in business — and the people end up paying for it.

Can you bring a class-action against the govt?

Of course not.

But you can if ALL the govt services were PRIVATISED.

Anonymous said...

hiya, you are very confused leh. How can public service 'lose money' when they are not really making any, or hold the legitimate goal of making money in the first place? Funny reason leh. Wah, I dont understand your twinnings example, too cheem lah.

hahaa, your faith in perfect efficient market very strong lah, like a cultish religion. wah, never know people are punished by market signal like a teacher hit the hand like a ruler. People so rational meh?

of course government lose money stay in business lah. If everytime government lose money, they get kicked out, that means everyday we have new government leh. Cannot work right? Stupid idea.