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Saving the senior exec's career

Can reskilling and embracing tech prevent middle-aged, mid-career PMETs from being displaced?

SAVING THE SENIOR EXEC’S CAREER: Can reskilling and embracing tech prevent middle-aged, mid-career PMETs from being displaced?

SAVING THE SENIOR EXEC’S CAREER: Can reskilling and embracing tech prevent middle-aged, mid-career PMETs from being displaced?

Erina Tan, who joined Y3 Technologies via the TeSA Company-Led Training Programme, encourages people to try new paths in the technology sector.

Inspired by peers who were in the IT field, Bernard Chew took short-term courses at NTUC LearningHub and landed a job in IT desktop support.

AFTER rising up the corporate ladder, middle-aged, mid-career professionals might find themselves abruptly out of a job, and in danger of being left behind by relentless technological progress. Some take up stop-gap work that turns long-term; others face competition from younger hires. This story is not new. It has been told over and over: from the Asian Financial Crisis to the dot-com bubble, from the global financial crisis to today's virus-driven recession. A long-running structural worry that also affects new cohorts each time, the issue of displaced older professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) has resurfaced - even before the Covid-19 outbreak intensified over the last month or so.

With Budget 2020 including new efforts tohelp this group, a question arises: how different is the challenge that they face today, as tech plays a growing role in the economy? To what extent can the story change?

A perennial problem

Each downturn in recent history has revived concerns over the lot of older PMETs, who are vulnerable to retrenchment and tend to take longer to return to employment - if at all.

"The issue of displacement of mature PMETs is not new, as structural unemployment among senior workers - including PMETs - is one of the long-term challenges encountered by Singapore," says SIM Global Education senior lecturer Dr Tan Khay Boon.

As the share of mature PMETs in the labour force grows, so too does the challenge. Singapore University of Social Sciences associate professor Walter Theseira notes that in 2009, just over a quarter of the labour force held a degree; today, the figure is 37.5 per cent. "The point is that even while the economy has increased demand for PMETs today compared to 20 years ago, having a PMET qualification or work history really doesn't stand out anymore," he says.

There tends to be a vast gap in income and skills between an entry-level PMET role and a senior one, making it hard for the latter to find equivalent positions once displaced, he adds: "The experience you have may not be relevant to growth sectors."

Things remain tough for older PMETs, or PMEs as the labour movement refers to them. Says National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay: "Based on labour market statistics and reports, we have seen that our middle-career workers continue to be the most vulnerable and affected by retrenchments, with higher skilled, middle-aged PMEs the hardest hit."

According to Ministry of Manpower (MOM) figures, there were 6,790 local retrenchments in 2019, of which PMETs formed 73.6 per cent, or nearly 5,000. Of the local retrenched PMETs, 37.7 per cent were aged 40 to 49, and another 32.7 per cent aged 50 and above. By these calculations, over 3,500 local PMETS aged 40 or older were retrenched in 2019.

Fine-grained figures are not available for re-entry into employment after six months, but the overall rate for PMETs is 61.9 per cent, lower than other occupational groups. For all workers, the re-entry rate is 65.8 per cent for those 40 to 49, and 52.2 per cent for those 50 and over, lower than those for younger workers - 82.5 per cent for those below 30, and 76.3 per cent for those 30 to 39.

The current economic crisis has the potential to be worse than previous downturns such as Sars and the global financial crisis, notes OCBC Bank chief economist Selena Ling.

Granted, the immediate impact has fallen on front-line service staff. But she adds: "Typically, the first hit may be on the non-PMET roles, but as the pandemic continues, not many industries, firms or workers may be immune."

Despite government support, there is a risk that firms keen on cost-cutting may lay off older workers, including older PMETs, she says.

"The employment and employability of our PMEs is something that the labour movement is actively looking into," says Mr Tay.

The new Job Security Council, for instance, aims to place PMEs - especially those "in their 40s and 50s who may be at higher risk of displacement" - in new roles with participating employers, ahead of their displacement.

Budget 2020, meanwhile, featured the SkillsFuture Mid-Career Support Package for locals in their 40s and 50s, aiming to double the annual number of such workers who are placed into jobs via government reskilling programmes, to about 5,500 by 2025.

The package includes the ramping-up of such programmes, with enhanced salary support for mid-career rank-and-file workers during training; an incentive for employers who hire job seekers ages 40 and above via these programmes; an additional S$500 SkillsFuture Credit top-up for citizens aged 40 to 60; and building a pool of volunteer career advisors.

In the Committee of Supply, another scheme was introduced: the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) Mid-Career Advance Programme, to get Singaporeans aged 40 and above into tech-related jobs. Ten companies are already on board, with 500 positions committed and the aim of placing 2,000 more locals over the next two to three years.

This aims to create more opportunities for mid-career professionals and match them "with companies that otherwise may not be naturally looking at mid-career professionals as a source of talent", says Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) chief industry development officer Howie Lau.

The IMDA's starting point was not to address the issue of displaced PMETs per se, he clarifies: "Our starting point was that there is value from both the company perspective as well as the mature PMET perspective to consider this option."

Teaching new tricks

Granted, getting older PMETs into an industry often associated with their younger counterparts might not seem like the most obvious move.

"It is not easy, as tech-related roles which are in huge demand are getting more technical in nature, and it is not easy to pick these skills up," says Patricia Teo, director of executive search firm Kerry Consulting's technology practice. Roles with a "constant talent shortage" include chief technology officers; software engineers; site reliability and DevOps professionals; digital product owners and commercial leaders; data science; and in cybersecurity.

According to the MOM's latest job vacancies report, the top PMET vacancies in 2019 included software, web, and multimedia developers, and systems analysts - both roles which require technical skills.

Still, there are possibilities, says Ms Teo: "Technology project management roles have been the easiest of the transitions for non-tech PMETs, particularly if these candidates had domain or industry knowledge."

Such "tech-lite" jobs are a significant part of tech labour demand, says industry body SGTech's chairman Wong Wai Meng. The tech talent shortage is across the whole spectrum of roles, he says: from deep tech and tech-lite to "for-tech" roles that support the development of solutions.

While deep tech roles require correspondingly deep skills, tech-lite roles are supporting ones such as digital sales advisors, which "do not require very strong technical capabilities but are very important", he says.

For-tech roles may be even more suitable for mid-career PMETs with no tech background, he adds.A human resources (HR) professional in a "for-tech" role could help in the creation of HR software modules, even if they may not know the tech itself.

Similarly, in developing enterprise resource planning solutions for manufacturing, "just the application knowledge is not good enough". A solutions developer could gain from hiring a PMET with previous expertise on the manufacturing floor.

"Technology is always applied. An application is useless when the business doesn't use it," he says, adding that older PMETs have valuable business experience and project management skills, too. "So that's where I think some of these conversion programmes will help fill the gap."

The TeSA Mid-Career Advance programme addresses this with its variety of jobs, split roughly 50-50 between tech specialist roles and tech-lite ones.

Ironically, one obstacle to getting PMETs into tech jobs might be their own reluctance. As Mr Wong notes: "I think the tech industry somehow has this very mystical (reputation), that it's hard to get in."

Anecdotally, retrenched PMETs often take up stop-gap roles such as insurance agents or taxi drivers, which may become permanent occupations.

"To reskill for the new demands of the labour market is costly and time-consuming, with an uncertain outcome," says Dr Tan. "For immediate survival, it is natural that the older retrenched PMETs take up stop-gap occupations."

Says Dr Theseira: "I think it is worth studying whether credit constraints and the lack of unemployment insurance explain why people go to and stay in such stop-gap work.

"If you don't have income to support you during skills training or job search, you naturally have to spend more time in work, so you might never get out of that."

The government's new Covid-19 Support Grant, for those who lose their jobs amid the virus outbreak, could mitigate this issue. Successful applicants will get a monthly cash grant of S$800 for three months while they look for a new job or attend training.

The TeSA Mid-Career Advance programme, meanwhile, provides the certainty of a guaranteed job. Participants are employed, with a salary, while attending company-led training for the required skills.

Participating firms receive funding support while committing to hiring trainees for up to 24 months. This is thus very different from, say, doing a short online course where "you may or may not have a job outcome", says Mr Lau.

The structured, job-linked nature of the similar TeSA Company-Led Training programme was what prompted Ms Erina Tan, 48, to make the leap last year. Before, she had considered IT reskilling but found it hard to tell which course to choose.

Previously a product manager with an IT training organisation - though without IT knowledge - until the firm underwent reorganisation, she joined Y3 Technologies via the TeSA course and is on the way to becoming a digital marketing manager.

"For those people who have doubts, I would encourage them to have the courage to try out new paths for themselves, especially in the technology space," she says. "Everybody has to be agile nowadays."

Participating TeSA Mid-Career Advance employers include ThoughtWorks, with three different roles, all open to those with no prior ICT (infocomms technology) experience. "For the IT consulting analyst and IT support analyst roles, we focus on their previous experience," says Wong Wen Shun, ThoughtWorks' managing director of South-east Asia.

For the software developer role, successful applicants must undergo an intensive engineering bootcamp. "For all the roles, ThoughtWorks has created a support infrastructure to help in the transition to support each individual be successful," he adds.

Also participating is DBS Bank, which is looking to hire and train 15 mid-career professionals. Says the bank's Singapore head of human resources Theresa Phua: "Mid-career professionals bring with them a sense of maturity and their past experience gives us new insights to improve our customer journeys."

The right fit

In general, the approach of ascertaining market demand and matching job seekers with specific roles is best, says SGTech's Mr Wong. "Match the demand and the supply, then we train. If you just train loosely... then what if the person can't find a job?"

Matching benefits both sides, he notes. Even if a new hire does not know the company's technology, they could still be a good fit: "When a match is there, I can train the person specifically for that purpose, then we realise the success factor together."

SGTech has seen success in its one-year pilot run of the Professional Conversation Programme (PCP) for Salesforce Platform Professionals.(see amendment note) It was launched in September 2018 with almost 50 participants across 18 firms, of whom nearly half were either aged over 40, had been unemployed for over six months, or both. SGTech is now scaling up from one PCP to three, aiming to secure job placements for over 300 PMETs through 2022. The roles offered do not require programming knowledge.

Based on the pilot run, SMEs are indeed open to hiring older mid-career PMETs, says Mr Wong. He hopes that for their part, such PMETs will be willing to make the leap, while having realistic expectations.

Some PCPs specify a minimum salary of S$2,500, and the funding cap is S$6,000 per month. While SGTech does not specify salary requirements, this range roughly corresponds to what they have observed in the market - possibly a step down from previous roles for mid-career PMETs.

There is also a broader shift to make. Just as how the Job Security Council aims to place workers before displacement occurs, Mr Wong believes that efforts should be more proactive: "We always react to the problem when jobs get lost. Shouldn't we look ahead, into the industries that we know will have displacement, the roles that we know will be lost?"

Reach out to those in danger of being displaced and ensure they learn new skills, he adds. But he recognises this will not be easy: "Companies don't want to acknowledge it, they don't want to scare their workers. Workers also don't want to acknowledge it. ...How do we get everyone to start facing up to the hard truth?"

One older PMET who had to face up to this is Bernard Chew, 45, who had an IT-related role in the early 2000s, then a string of jobs - including menial tasks in the food and beverage industry - before deciding to plunge back into the area of IT.

"Computing in this age has changed so much," he says. IT skills picked up in earlier years can expire swiftly. "Given this set of skills that you have, you know it's going to be obsolete - you have to venture out and pick up new skills to remain relevant," he says.

Inspired by peers who were in the IT field, he began taking short-term courses at NTUC LearningHub, encouraged by the SkillsFuture Credit introduced in 2015. This February, he landed a job in IT desktop support.

He hopes to take a diploma course soon, in the name of continuous learning: "It gives you a sense of hope that one day you can land a better job with better career prospects."

"From time to time, we do meet non-tech people who would 'deselect' themselves from tech-related job opportunities," says NTUC LearningHub chief executive officer Kwek Kok Kwong. "But we also meet people who will brave the journey and venture into uncharted territory by taking the first step in acquiring the right tech knowledge and skills through training with us in NTUC LearningHub."

Over 34,000 trainees aged 40 and above took technology courses with NTUC LHUB in 2019, representing about three-quarters of attendees.

Both Mr Chew and IMDA's Mr Lau share a goal: to show older PMETs that a switch into the tech field is possible. "People my age, in our forties, still can learn," says Mr Chew.

Says Mr Lau: "It's about using the (TeSA) programme to change perceptions as well... You cannot change perceptions by telling people. You can only change perceptions by showing that it works."

 Amendment note: An earlier version of this story made reference to the Professional Conversion Programme for Salesforce Professionals. Workforce Singapore has clarified that it should be the Professional Conversion Programme for Salesforce Platform Professionals.

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