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.