Live & Learn
Crafting your career journey in the time of COVID

Written by Daniel Tay


We’ve seen this before.

In the economic recession of 2008 and the Asian Financial Crisis (AFC) of 1997, our parents, relatives, or family friends lost jobs or were forced to close businesses. Even for those born after 1997, the aftermath of the AFC may have left its mark on our childhood.

But if you were fortunate enough not to have experienced the hardships of those times, you can view this trending comic by The Woke Salaryman for an intimate picture.



 
Source: “1997 was a dark year for myfather” by The Woke Salaryman


And now, it’s our generation’s turn.

COVID-19 has wrecked graduation celebrations and carefully laid-out plans for launching careers. In its wake, it’s leaving behind a field of worries, questions with no looming answers, and even a sense of despair among fresh graduates and young professionals all over Singapore.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

You can take a calming breath, do a pivot, and craft your career journey wisely even in the time of COVID.

Here’s how.

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Table of contents
1.    The challenges of today’s job landscape
1.1.    Should I accept a much lower wage in exchange for an opportunity?
1.2.    Should I take a job in a different field, just because it’s available?
1.3.    Is there a middle ground where I can thrive?


2.    A game plan for launching your career in 2020
2.1.    Choose an industry strategically
2.2.    Identify the problems you can help solve
2.3.    Build your portfolio
2.4.    Prepare for how AI will change your job
2.5.    Hone your video chat communication skills
2.6.    Expand your network


3.    Your career journey starts now
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The challenges of today’s job landscape


First, let’s take a real hard look at the situation.

According to CNA, 48,500 new jobseekers are leaving school in Singapore this year. For every 100 of these jobseekers, only 71 jobs were available as of March 2020. (Silver lining: that’s almost twice the amount in March 2009, when only 37 jobs were open for every 100 jobhunters.)

Tipping the scales against fresh graduates even further, Maybank economists predicted that 150,000 to 200,000 jobs will be lost in Singapore this year, even with the subsidies the government has given to businesses.

And of those jobs available? They probably won’t give you the pay you expect. A survey in March revealed that 3% of firms have cut workers’ salaries and 5% were contemplating doing so. Among those lucky enough to secure job offers, many have moaned about below-average wages that are often a few hundred to a thousand dollars lower than what they expected.

What’s the point of painting this bleak picture? We all know how bad things are. But getting the data helps us set realistic expectations and goals. It will also help us choose a strategy for launching our careers in the time of COVID.

The data also highlights certain issues graduates this year will face.


Should I accept a much lower wage in exchange for an opportunity?


A fair question—and the answer depends on what other choices you have.

Some graduates will be able to afford to say “no” to a job that offers a wage that’s way below average. One major reason for rejecting it would be that your current salary could affect how much your next employer would willingly pay you.

Unfortunately, employers here aren’t prohibited from asking about your current salary. If you take a job that pays, say, $2,500 now and apply for a similar role two years later, that prospective employer might not see the justification in paying you $4,500, even if that’s the market rate.

But for others, saying “no” might mean not being able to eat three meals a day or make rent. If you’ve been sending out dozens of applications for over a month and you can no longer afford to be jobless for another month, then there’s no shame in accepting the job offer. Focus instead on how you can make the most out of this opportunity to make yourself more employable in the future.


Should I take a job in a different field, just because it’s available?


Maybe you want to be a marketer but can only find a customer service job right now. Perhaps your dream of working at a Michelin-starred restaurant has been shattered, but you have the opportunity to be trained and hired as a field technician.

You can see this either as a detour or a stepping stone.

During a career dialogue on Young NTUC’s Instagram Live channel in April, Andy Koh, Senior CX Strategy Partner at Starhub, shared his views on the subject. An audience member had asked about landing jobs in sought-after companies like Google.

Koh said that if the company has an opening for a different role than the one you were aiming for, you should take it. “At the end of the day, you’ll understand the ins and outs of the company,” he said. And you’ll be able to build a network of people who can help you take the leap towards your dream job.

Consider the same advice for job openings outside of your target companies. In a job-scarce market, your priority might simply be to secure a position. Again, if you can’t afford to wait for an opportunity that suits you better, saying "yes" is probably your best choice right now.

There are a few more arguments for being open to opportunities, too.

For one, combining disciplines has well-documented advantages. It’s a great way to solve problems, as it allows you to analyze a situation from multiple perspectives.

The ability to succeed in more than one field also shows you’re adaptable. And with such a fast-changing world driven by rapid technological innovation, adaptability has become a key trait for future success.

Finally, the Harvard Business Review writes that having “two wildly divergent careers” helps you pick up new skills, widen your network, and—as mentioned earlier—"discover truly creative new solutions”. 


Is there a middle ground where I can thrive?


When weighing decisions in a less-than-ideal job landscape, it’s easy to feel like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. But thanks to Singapore’s private and public sectors, there is a middle ground where you can possibly thrive for the time being.

This can take the form of projects, freelance gigs, and paid traineeships.

In April, the Singapore government announced the SGUnited Traineeships Programme. It’s a $100 million programme that invites companies to provide paid traineeships to Singapore citizens and permanent residents who have graduated from Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics, universities, and other private educational institutions in 2019 or 2020.

Those who have graduated previously and just completed National Service in 2019 or 2020 are also eligible. Soon-to-be-graduates, as well as graduates of MA and PhD programmes, are included, too.

For the programme, the government will co-fund 80% of the training allowance. Keep in mind that you’ll be getting an allowance, not a salary. Here’s what you can expect to receive:

 

While it’s definitely below the average entry-level salary, the paid traineeship programme will allow companies that have otherwise frozen hiring to take in fresh talent. It’s a plus for the company as they can boost their teams, and it also lets new graduates get their foot in the door of the industry they’d like to work in.   

To find a paid traineeship, you can visit mycareersfuture.sg and search for opportunities under the hashtag #SGUnitedTraineeships. Choose carefully and understand what you’re signing up for. Paid traineeships don’t necessarily mean an employer-employee relationship, for example, so you need to read the fine print before signing a traineeship contract.

But whichever path you choose to take—be it a job, projects, an internship, or a paid traineeship—you need to have a game plan for launching your career.


A game plan for launching your career in 2020


In chaotic times, therapists suggest focusing on things we can control. And while you can’t control whether or not a company will hire you and give you the salary you want, it’s in your power to prepare yourself as best as you can to launch your career.

Here are some things you can do.


Choose an industry strategically


What industries will thrive post-COVID-19? What skills will these industries need?

You need to consult different sources when doing your research. Everyone has an opinion, so it’s on you to sift through the evidence and arguments they present. Read the predictions of influential global organisations, but understand local perspectives as well.

Some readings to start with include:
●    Who will be the winners in a post-pandemic economy? by the World Economic Forum
●    Coronavirus: your guide to winners and losers in the business world by The Conversation
●    COVID-19 sector heatmaps by Deloitte
●    COVID-19: changing industry fortunes and how businesses can thrive by EY
●    Some industries may grow even as Singapore heads for recession by The Straits Times

To widen your job prospects, it makes sense to focus on sectors that are thriving and will continue to thrive post-COVID.

But if you’re determined to have a career in an industry that’s currently hurting—say, tourism or aviation—read up instead on how that industry has been impacted by COVID-19 and how it will change as a result.

You can then direct your job-search efforts towards the industry of your choice. Meanwhile, you can keep up-to-date with the developments and challenges in that industry, and focus on honing the skills required to thrive in that field.

 

Identify the problems you can help solve



The question of which industry will give you long-term prospects is a self-interested one. No harm in that, of course—we need to look out for ourselves and reduce the uncertainty in our future.

But you can also flip that question around and ask: “What problems can I solve?”

This question achieves two things: it helps you focus on the things you care about, as well as identify a need in the market.

By focusing on solving problems, you increase your chances of finding work that you’ll find meaningful and engaging.

And that’s significant. Research by consulting firm Gallup has shown that companies with a high level of employee engagement are 21% more profitable. In a world where more people find their jobs meaningless—“bullsh*t jobs”, as the anthropologist who covered this topic calls them—it’s worth taking the time to reflect and plan a career direction that gives you purpose.

And once you’ve identified the kinds of problems you’d like to solve? Assess your skills and determine how you can use them to help come up with solutions.

The answer you get can be the North Star to guide your career journey. To paraphrase a famous quote by American novelist Frederick Buechner, your calling is “the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet”.

In crafting your career, aim to use your talents to solve real problems. COVID-19 has opened up a can of worms exposing all the ways our social, economic, political, and healthcare systems fall short. You can start with that.


Build your portfolio


Building your portfolio is something you should have started doing even when in school. But if you haven’t begun yet, consider this lull period as an opportune time to do so.

On the other hand, if you have physical examples of your work, you can digitize them so you can migrate your portfolio online.

Some fields will have more obvious materials for a portfolio—visual arts students can display their photographs, films, paintings, or graphic designs; architecture students can showcase the plans they’ve made; writers can present their articles.

For other fields, it’s not so straightforward. What would an accountancy or sociology student showcase, for example?

Your final-year project would be a good place to start (if it’s something you’re proud of, that is!). You can build a free website that explains your project, be it through a short film, a photo essay, or a series of articles.

You could also write a blog about your take on industry issues. These articles can serve as a portfolio that will showcase your interests and analytical skills to prospective employers.


Prepare for how AI will change your job


In an article by Wired, IBM chief economist Martin Fleming is quoted as saying the belief that robots will replace the workforce is “nonsense”. A study by IBM revealed that AI will more likely change our jobs rather than take over them.

And in fact, job listings from 2010 to 2017 revealed that roles have been changing. Routine tasks that AI assistants can easily perform, such as calendar scheduling, have been disappearing from job ads. In their place have come soft skills, such as “creativity, common sense, and judgement”. Those are skills AI can’t easily replace.

Fleming asserted that people will be working more with algorithms—so you can start getting comfortable with that. For example, you can practice studying data visualizations or working with automation tools.

On the manufacturing floor, for instance, connected machines will feed data into a business intelligence software, which can then present the information on dashboards. That means an engineer’s job will come to include reading data summaries and interpreting data visualizations, and identifying insights that can help improve performance.

It will also include investigative and problem-solving skills—if the data shows more downtime among a specific group of machines, you’ll need to discover the factors that contribute to this situation in order to find a way to solve it.

AI’s ability to perform routine tasks will also free up professionals to do more high-level, value-adding work. Such work will require creativity, emotional intelligence, collaboration, and leadership. It’s time to brush up on these skills.

 

Hone your video chat communication skills


With many companies continuing to adopt remote work even after the circuit breaker period, chances are high that you’ll be interviewed for a job or traineeship via video call.

This removes most of the context that body language can provide. So you’ll have to make up for it with your facial expressions and voice—not to mention the substance of your interview.

You can take turns with a friend to practice over a video call. Record the session. Then—no matter how cringe-worthy it may feel—play it back and observe yourself.

Are you able to convey warmth, interest, and confidence? Do you use fillers—“um”, “like”, “you know”—more often than you care to admit? Does your voice sound flat and unenthusiastic?

Work on fixing these issues. For example, sitting up straighter or even standing during a call can give your voice more energy. Smiling and asking questions can help you build rapport with your interviewer. Preparing for the interview will prevent frequent fumbling around for words and needing to use many fillers. Rehearse telling your story and prepare questions in advance.

Look at your video call background, too. If the job or traineeship will require you to work from home at times, you should be able to show the company that you have a distraction-free workspace. Even if it’s just your room, remove the clutter from your background.

There are also other technical aspects you can easily fix. For instance, make sure the camera is more or less level with your face—you don’t want your interviewer looking up your nose! And check that your electric fan or air-conditioning unit isn’t causing distracting background noise.

Most importantly, ask your friend to give you honest feedback—and share your own observations with them just as openly when it’s their turn.


Expand your network


Before COVID-19, expanding your network meant meeting people at events or inviting them for a chat over coffee. In this new reality, though, a lot of these interactions will have to take place online.

Join forums and social media groups relevant to your career path. Take the courage to speak up in these forums, but make sure you’re adding value to the conversation when you do so.

You can also reach out to potential mentors online. This might mean connecting on LinkedIn or joining virtual mentorship programmes.

You can also find people to collaborate with online. This can be as simple as guest-posting on a blog and inviting that person to post on your own platform. It can also mean collaborating virtually on a project.

By expanding your network, you’ll get to know more people who can potentially share opportunities to pursue your dream career. You can also broaden your understanding of the industry by learning from other people’s perspectives.

Plus, you'll be able to contribute to your chosen field in a small way, before you’ve even started working.

 

Your career journey starts now
 

 

Your future doesn't have to be put on hold because of COVID-19. You can start crafting your career journey now, not later when things get better.

Trust that they will get better. And then, one day, perhaps a decade from now, the world might throw a wrench in your plans again.

You can't control these circumstances, but you can determine your response to them. And as a fresh (or soon-to-be) graduate or young professional, that response should include building a career strategy that will help you succeed in an unpredictable world.