COVID-19: Switching careers a challenge for some job seekers despite opportunities

SINGAPORE: Since getting laid off from her job as a business development director at a travel technology firm eight months ago, Syazanah Haniff has applied for more than 120 positions, including roles outside her previous industry and occupation. Right now, she is trying to get by on a temporary gig as a temperature screener at the airport. It pays 30 per cent of what she used to get. 

It has been disheartening, the 35-year-old said. Even though she has been in marketing and business development for about 12 years, Ms Haniff gets told that she does not have the relevant industry experience when she applies for a similar role in other lines like healthcare, logistics and finance. 

When she tries for positions that are a step or two backwards - as a sales manager, or an account executive - she is told she is “overqualified”. 

After hitting such roadblocks, she followed the Government’s advice to be open-minded about changing direction to take on in-demand roles, particularly in technology. She has tried for opportunities in software development or cybersecurity, but got rejected for all but one - an SGUnited traineeship programme with a technology company that she is still waiting to hear back from. 

An advanced diploma course in supply chain and logistics under the SGUnited scheme was due to start this month, but she said the training provider met with some issues and might not be able to commence on time.

“I have to say that the opportunities are there. But it's a matter of whether some of the employers themselves are truly open-minded too,” Ms Haniff said. “It should be a two-way street, right?”

Farhan Juraimi lost his job in the education sector in June. Armed with a degree in applied physics, and given the current economic situation, he tried to be open and went for roles in electronics manufacturing and biomedical technology, as a lab technician, operations manager or quality engineer, but received no offers. 

Sometimes, he got the “overqualified” response too, even though he was willing to take a pay cut. 

In September, he finally landed a traineeship, but still in the education field, with a 40 per cent drop in salary. He is still looking for a full-time job - a situation the company understands as he has household expenses to pay for. 

Hiring in Singapore has slowed as Singapore’s labour market conditions come under strain amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s jobless rate climbed to 3 per cent in July, and employment contracted by a record 129,100 in the first half of 2020. Some economic observers have warned that the worst is yet to come. 

Meanwhile, the Government has been highlighting bright spots in the economy while also rolling out initiatives to develop opportunities for job seekers.

In May, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced the S$2 billion SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package, with the aim of helping 100,000 people by shoring up job attachments and training vacancies. 

During September’s parliamentary sitting, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said more than 95,000 opportunities have been made available, and more than 25,000 of them have been taken up.

Sectors with the most placements so far are mostly those with growth prospects such as in media, information technology, financial services, professional services and healthcare, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said in response to CNA’s queries. The ones with fewest placements are in sectors hardest hit by COVID-19: Aerospace, marine and offshore, and sea transport.

A weekly Jobs Situation Report issued by the authorities since August has been part of a strategy to spur job seekers to be receptive to whatever is available during this downturn. These surveys feature a different sector every week showcasing the opportunities available.

“I urge all job seekers to stay open-minded and to leverage such opportunities to move into growth sectors for better career progression,” Mrs Teo said during the release of one of these reports in August. 

With such opportunities, what strategies can job seekers use to ensure they are successful in securing something in a completely new career?

Headhunters say there could be a gap because applicants are not doing enough homework, while companies say taking a chance on people without the right background is too risky. 

Jaya Dass, the managing director of recruitment agency Randstad Singapore and Malaysia, said the Government’s message to make the best out of the current situation is “definitely” the correct one right now. 

But even then, candidates have to show they genuinely want the job. 

“I think what you see typically with job seekers - and as an agency, we see a fair bit of this - people are trigger-happy to click on their mouse and hit apply,” she said. 

Just addressing the job description - usually a summary of what the company wants - is not good enough, Ms Dass said. Nor is merely showing interest. 

“I think this is how job seekers go about it: They profess their desire, but the desire has no bearing on your ability to be successful.”

Applicants have to do proper research about the function of the job, the type of people in it, and how to convince the company their plans to address any skills and experience gaps they have. 

“In a period like this, where budgets are streamlined, and companies only hire for extremely important or pivotal roles that make a difference to how they operate during this period, they are not about the take a risk and bring someone in because someone wants to try their hands at something,” she said. 

“There has to be a commitment and there has to be an intelligent discussion … around why you want this role and how you intend to close that gap between your current skill sets and what's required,” she added.

Joey Kang, a Workforce Singapore (WSG) career coach, said a successful career switch does not happen overnight and requires some legwork. 

“Often, job seekers have expectations and dependency on employers to train them instead of being proactive in investing in themselves or doing volunteer (or) pro-bono service to familiarise themselves with the industry,” she said. 

Instead, they should get insights from friends and contacts who have worked in these roles, which could help them to portray themselves as being proactive and adaptable during interviews - “allowing them to better negate the impression that they lack industry experience”. 

“I would also encourage them to examine the hiring criteria and assess whether they have the transferrable skills, experiences and attributes demanded by employers. If there are significant gaps in these areas, they would want to examine how they should bridge the gaps,” she added. 

She said she has seen more job seekers embrace the unfamiliar as the pandemic has dragged on.

“In the early days of COVID-19, no one had expected it to last this long. Many were insistent on a job and salary that are ideal to them,” Ms Kang said. 

But now, six months down the road, “reality has set in” as savings and vacancies in their preferred fields dry up, while competition for jobs has heated up. Job seekers have turned to contract work or training programmes to pull through in the interim. 

Additive manufacturing firm 3D Metalforge recently welcomed four graduates under the traineeship programmes - a designer, an engineer and a sales and administrative recruit. But it still has three engineering spots it has had trouble filling. 

The company received applications from the likes of hospitality or supply chain graduates, but had to turn them down as did not have any technical background, said Lily Ho, the company’s programme manager. 

“It’s very, very tough (to bring such people in),” Ms Ho said, likening the situation of asking someone in human resource to suddenly become a doctor.

“It’s too extreme. No matter how much training you provide, you can’t expect the person to ease into the position,” she said. 

Standard Chartered's head of human resource for Singapore, Australia, and ASA (ASEAN and South Asia) cluster markets Charlotte Thng said that while they are on the lookout for people “with a strong interest … who want to develop their career” in technology, “we do need some level of entry requirement”. 

“A lot of these roles … need to (have) a degree of skill sets and competencies that need to happen before companies are able to onboard them,” said Tribe Accelerator’s managing partner Ng Yi Ming.

Going back to school is the way to go, he said. “When you go right into the job, sometimes things are moving too fast-paced, whereas training allows you to have the bandwidth to understand the fundamentals.”

But when it comes to non-specialised roles, Ms Ho said she would be open to career switchers, but based on past recruitment exercises, competition for such places tend to be high.

3D Metalforge, which currently has about 20 employees, plans to open up some full-time positions that include one in marketing and another in human resource, as it looks to expand in Singapore and open up a manufacturing facility in Houston. The company does 3D printing for oil and gas players. 

Wilson Neo, the founder of interior design firm WEDA StudioInc, is currently looking for a project coordinator and an app developer. 

Career switchers are welcome to apply for the project management role, he said, but the app developer would need a technical background because the position is new and there is no one who can provide the necessary training. 


As for the issue of overqualified applicants, Ms Dass said “unfortunately, there is a stereotyping that happens … around who will do the job really well”.

Apart from whether the applicant can do the task, there are other concerns hiring managers have to factor in  - who the other team members are, the pay scale, and who the applicant will be reporting to. 

Recruiters, she said, are worried that when the candidate might soon realise they are not comfortable in their new job and quit earlier than expected. 

But she is optimistic that employers themselves will become more open as the economy recovers. 

“A lot of employers are sticking to their guns about … what they need for the role (at the moment),” Ms Dass said. 

“If the role remains on until for a much longer period, companies then start to re-address their talent strategy,” she added. “But there's always a lag in that shift economically, (for) market conditions to push people to change their strategy.”

Ms Ho said that as a company, they are afraid that such individuals will jump ship once a better-paying opportunity comes. 

“We spend so much time to train the person, even if it’s a general role,” she said. Already, someone who was supposed to come in as a trainee designer dropped out after finding a full-time position elsewhere. Ms Ho said they want people who are serious about the post.

“If he or she proves he can do the job, we might onboard him, and we’ll try to compensate him then,” she said.


On the flip side, some job seekers are waiting out for the right fit.

Lucy* (not her real name) was retrenched in April, although she had been looking out for alternatives since January, when her company was beginning its first round of cuts.

The former marketing and public relations executive, who is in her 30s and single, has applied for 11 jobs in the same field so far, and got interviews for four of them all four rejected her. 

Raymond Leong has been a full-time Grab driver since he got axed at the end of February. 

The former senior sales manager for a cruise and events company finally got a verbal offer from another firm in September, but that was after sending out “dozens and dozens” of applications over six months.

Apart from applying to temporary jobs, Mr Leong said he had mostly applied for roles in sales given his three decades of experience in this field. There is “no point in doing something you don’t enjoy", he said. 

His age would make it difficult to pick up anything technical as well. “I’m 62. Who would invest in me as an engineer?” he said.

So is it fine to be picky right now during such economic doom and gloom? Ms Dass said there is no right or wrong - it depends on personal circumstances, and whether the job seeker knows where their strengths lie, and what their career goal is. 

However, Foo See Yang, the managing director and country head of Kelly Services Singapore, said individuals who are jobless, especially those who are from niche industries like travel and tourism that have been directly impacted by the pandemic, might want to consider a switch, given the uncertainties surrounding how long this virus might last.

Those with fewer than three years of job experience could also consider it, he added, as they would still be considered fresh in their industries and moving will have less opportunity costs involved.

Ms Kang, the career coach from WSG, also thinks individuals seeking work should take up whatever is available and suitable under the SGUnited initiative first while continuing to apply and search for a longer-term position. At least this will provide some income to cover their living expenses, she said. 

They could apply for the SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways programme - an attachment programme for mid-career professionals - as well, as it gives them a chance to try out a new job or sector, gain some new skills and connections, while allowing the company to assess them. 

The position may be short-term at the outset, but it could translate into a proper job offer later on, she said.

But Lucy said she is sticking with what she is used to.

“I really enjoyed my last job and what I do, so I was really sad to go,” she said. “I don’t want to be in a job that is just about chasing after the next pay cheque.”

“A friend told me you don’t have to like your job, but I feel that is so meaningless,” she said. “Life is already so short and unpredictable. You don’t want to be stuck somewhere you don’t like for a long time.”

Published On : 2020-10-01