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HIGHER pay, higher visibility, higher chances of promotion - what's not to love about management trainee (MT) programmes? They may go by other names, such as the Management Associate or the Graduate Development programme, but they all have the same goal: groom and fast-track high-potential graduates to assume future leadership roles.
Competition is stiff. Some of the most popular programmes in Singapore have acceptance rates of less than 5 per cent. But while the perks of the corporate fast track are evident, issues such as mismatched expectations, elitism and complacency have emerged. The programmes' return on investment have also been called into question as many of these highly trained and highly skilled MTs get poached or leave for greener pastures.
Although MT programmes were once a staple of banks and financial institutions, they have become ubiquitous across various sectors.
Sybi Fitzgerald, head of Career Services at NUS Business School says: "The banking and finance sectors have the most number of such positions, followed by fast-moving consumer goods companies, government and aviation."
About 80 individuals, or 10 per cent of each graduating cohort of NUS Business School students, enter such programmes annually.
The programmes' allure has only increased over time. Recruiters say there are now more people vying for a spot among the privileged few than ever before.
Gwen Ong, a former management trainee of a financial services institution, and currently client solutions director of Korn Ferry Futurestep, says: "People like the prestige, and that it is a structured programme where they get to rotate among the different business units. Most fresh graduates might not know what they want, so they can try things out before settling on one."
Many in the programme also like the fact that they are connected to senior leaders in the organisation. "That special attention and direct access to the leadership is very valuable," she says.
In some cases, MTs even get the chance to be posted overseas for training stints or study trips, which is another key attraction, Ms Ong adds.
Pressure to perform
The heat may be on during the recruitment process to land a coveted spot, but the baptism of fire truly starts once the management trainee joins the firm.
Valenzia Yap, founder of insurance tech startup PolicyPal, and a former post-graduate management associate (MA) of OCBC Bank, says that those in the programme usually put in more hours and working late is "quite common".
This is because they get the opportunity to organise other activities and programmes beyond their core work.
"Back then, I was organising a leadership offsite event, leading a CSR (corporate social responsibility) team on the consumer banking side, and taking on the risk management work for the department. These are the additional work I had to handle. It was quite overwhelming, but it also gave me time to learn."
On the other hand, ex-management trainee Zachary (not his real name) from a Singapore bank, says that many of the side activities that he had to plan were time-consuming and "nonsensical".
Examples include putting up performances for the company's dinner and dance, as well as lion dances for the Chinese New Year celebrations for the whole division.
He says: "It took months to prepare and (was) too much like university life. I expected more training to learn how to work professionally."
The pressure to perform exceptionally well was also ever-present.
Says PolicyPal's Ms Yap: "When people know you are a management associate, their expectations of your performance are higher. Even our e-mail signatures indicate we are an MA, so how people look at you is slightly different."
As a management trainee, Zachary had a harder time with superiors and colleagues.
He explains: "Some bosses told others in the department that we were paid much more, and should be expected to do much more. Some colleagues at the same junior level weren't too happy about the 'preferential treatment'."
At Tan Tock Seng Hospital's (TTSH) MA programme, associates are kept on their toes. At the end of the two-year programme, they have to go through a final interview to determine if they make the cut for the next level, which is the Management Executive Programme (MEP).
David Dhevarajulu, director, transformation division at TTSH says that about 70-80 per cent of them move up to the MEP.
But it doesn't necessarily mean that 30 per cent of these associates fail to make the grade - there are also those who decide to settle in a department and those who take a gap year or two before continuing on the MEP, he says.
Regardless, industry watchers concur that it is difficult for MTs to simply cruise along.
Korn Ferry Futurestep's Ms Ong says that she has seen one or two cases of MTs that need to be managed out of the programme. These were mainly due to serious behavioural issues - one person had failed to show up at work.
Kulshan Singh, CEO of Mercer Singapore, says: "Such programmes do not offer privileges unconditionally. Yes, there is support in terms of mentoring, but very soon the MT hire needs to prove his or her mettle. Performance has to be in alignment with the premium put on potential. Mediocre performers drop off eventually."
Mismatched expectations and possible issues
There are several issues that tend to surface when it comes to the MT programme, regardless of the organisation or industry. One of the most common is the uneven experience when it comes to job rotations.
Some programmes might be only a year long, and the rotations may not be long enough for MTs to truly learn about the ins and outs of the department.
Chook Yuh Yng, country manager of JobStreet.com Singapore, says: "There might not be sufficient time for the trainee to fully comprehend and learn the function of the department… And if the candidate proves to be unsuitable for deployment in any of the departments, it could be a wasted investment."
MTs get a taste of what each office offers, without being bogged down by critical, long-term projects. This can be exasperating to managers or colleagues in the department who have to train these MTs and yet still pick up the pieces when they leave.
Ms Ong from Korn Ferry Futurestep explains that while MT programmes will often get buy-in from top management, this might not filter down to the different business units which will have to take on the MTs.
For some, the work can be so complex that it is impossible to train someone fresh in a matter of months. As a result, the experience that MTs have across departments can vary greatly.
Another issue that often crops up is the department that MTs end up at after their programme ends. While MTs get a say on their preference, business needs tend to come first.
Says Ms Ong: "One period where I can see angst happening is when an individual doesn't get his or her choice. It can be like Harry Potter and the Sorting Hat."
She adds that the beleaguered talent programme manager - whom she describes as the MTs' "nanny" - will usually receive a lot of complaints when the deployment is not ideal.
Zachary was one of the MTs who had difficulty landing his final posting after the end of his programme. "Some of us ended up being "orphans" that needed to be adopted by any department that needed people."
He ended up in a "random" department doing data entry work. He eventually left after six months to pursue further studies in business analytics, as he saw no future in what he was doing.
Any longer and he would soon become "overpaid and obsolete", Zachary says.
One frequent criticism of the MT programme is the potential creation of an elitist culture - one in which there is a divide between "future leaders" and the rest of the plebeians. Straight-to-desk hires may question the value of their own work, considering how they are paid less and receive fewer opportunities compared to their MA peers.
Roger (not his real name), an executive in the healthcare industry, notes that due to the short tenure of MTs in the department, projects started by them usually don't end with them.
"I have to carry on where they have left off, and this is extra work for us, especially if the quality produced is low. The MTs are less invested in the work as well because they know their term with us is short."
His other gripe is that the MTs in the hospital get many chances to go overseas for conferences or study trips, while executives get little access to such opportunities.
"MTs get to go with no questions asked, but I would have to jump through many more hoops and be grilled by managers on why I deserve to go."
However, TTSH's Mr Dhevarajulu says that the perception of elitism was something they encountered only at the start of the programme in 2009, and has since tapered off.
"At the end of the year, we use the same ruler to judge both the MA and the executive. In fact, we are tougher on the MA. What we offer to the MA is a leg-up - we post them to different departments and they get mentoring. We expect them to perform better."
Another reason for this shift in perception is due to increased opportunities for other executives in TTSH to shine too.
He says that promising executives get the chance to apply via their management executive programme to be fast-tracked for management.
Similarly in DBS Bank, the management associate programme is not the only path for developing and grooming entry-level staff as future leaders.
Says James Loo, executive director and head of DBS's talent acquisition group: "If you are a consistently strong performer, you will get into our talent management programme anyway. We have programmes for Hi-Pos (high potentials) to develop you further such as being able to participate in cross-departmental assignments, or even go for overseas stints at a DBS branch, for the more senior ones."
He adds that that there are straight-to-desk hires who can progress just as fast as MAs.
The management trainee programme might not be perfect, but it doesn't make itself out to be. Fresh graduates need to enter with their eyes open and be aware of what they should expect.
As Ms Ong puts it: "As a trainee, you are not earmarked forever. Management trainees have an advantage because of the opportunities, but they still need to fight for advancement - it's not automatic."
While the success cases are usually highlighted to students at career fairs, there are also cases of those who realise only later that the programme does not suit them, or end up stuck in a department they cannot move out of.
On the bright side, however, those who do go through the training get a plethora of learning and development opportunities that they might not have experienced otherwise.
Says Mr Loo: "We want employees to take control of their own careers. It is in their own hands. There are so many platforms for a person to succeed, so you take charge. How far you progress is really up to you."