Do I really have to “downgrade” myself and accept a less-than-ideal job?

Dear Ian, I am in a rut and need your advice. I had been stationed in China for a US semiconductor manufacturing company for more than 10 years as the General Manager of a plant in Shenzhen, earning a five-figure monthly income. Due to a corporate restructuring exercise in 2011, I was laid off, and returned to Singapore in 2012. I took a short break from employment and in Sep 2012, decided to enter the workforce again. Unfortunately, the job market was very different from what it used to be. I have not been able to secure a job, even when I have come down from my previous take-home salary level. Even today, when I am asking for only $8,000, I don’t get a second interview. I have spoken to many people who have advised me to lower my expectations and take whatever is on offer, even at $6,000. But how can I bring myself to come down to this level? I used to run a US$300M facility and we broke profit records year after year from 2004 to 2007! I have been holding out for a job that is commensurate with my experience, position and salary but it has already been 2 years since entering the workforce and nobody has been able to help me. I cannot accept that I have to downgrade myself and accept a less-than-ideal job. I am married with two daughters aged 23 and 27. I am 58 years old.


Dear Crest,

I take it that you have sought out the services of a career counselor and placement specialists; and you have subscribed to the JobsBank? The CDCs also have help for people like you and if you have not availed yourself with these services, which are free, you might like to look into them.

But let’s assume that you have, and let’s assume that the results are less than stellar, what should you do now?

Before I talk about your situation specifically, it would be worthwhile for us to take a step back and look at the strategic considerations of what is happening in the jobs market especially for others who have been facing the same situation as you, and what might be needed to handle that.

Structural unemployment

You are an unwitting casualty of structural unemployment; a situation where the jobs you were competent in are no longer around. This is due in large part to economic restructuring, and the advancement of the economy. At 58 years of age, you would have grown up in a rural economy where farming was still carried out in Singapore. When independence was thrust onto Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew very quickly realized that the lack of hinterland will stunt any agricultural growth, and we had to place our attention onto manufacturing. For 20 years from the late 60s onward, Singapore had been courting the large manufacturing companies of the West to set up in Singapore as we had a strategy of up-skilling our workforce for the advanced needs of manufacturing. Our education system also created a workforce that lent itself to supporting the manufacturing sector, with many people believing that if we worked hard for one company, they would take care of us until we retired. You know, the old colonial way of thinking.

For a long time, this was true. Singapore became the manufacturing hub of the East, maybe, even the world! With a deep-water port to help facilitate the transshipment of goods, Singapore grew very quickly from third world to first.

Then China opened up. And with that, the manufacturing jobs shifted from Singapore to there. In fact, you were the beneficiary of that shift and for a while, this was good because there were huge productivity gains to be enjoyed with the scale that came with the shift to China. Hence, middle-upper management in China enjoyed extraordinary growth in salaries. It would not be unheard of for a Singaporean general manager earning close to $20,000 a month all in in those days. For a while, many Singaporeans enjoyed the benefits of the rapid economic growth in China.

Meanwhile, back in Singapore, the economy was suffering the effects of the structural shift. The first technical recession occurred in 1985. However, on the back of strong leadership, a hardworking workforce and the burgeoning disk drive industry, Singapore scraped through. What it had done was to emphasise the need for greater productivity and harder work. Unfortunately, the message was work harder, not work smarter.

To some extent, China is now experiencing what we had in the 80s. With more economies opening up, and a growing middle class, China is no longer the cost leader in the world. With productivity falling due to lifestyle change, China companies now cannot afford to keep as large a workforce as they used to, and with that, comes the restructuring, and the concomitant loss of jobs. Many foreign senior managers now face the chop, as you had experienced. Structural unemployment has reared its ugly head again.

Training as a solution

The economic solution for structural unemployment is retraining. If we could somehow get the workers who had lost their job due to retrenchment to pick up a new skill that is in demand, we would be able to position the economy for the next wave. Unfortunately, that is over simplistic. People are not machines. Machines can be retooled and redeployed with relative ease. People come with a host of psychological factors that might resist the retooling efforts. A sense of significance, which machines don’t have, can hinder the retraining efforts. The plasticity of mind – which determines how malleable your thinking is to new ideas – will hinder any efforts at upgrading. In short, people come with a host of humanistic issues that machines don’t have. Hence, the economic solution of retraining may sometimes be less than effective. And this is what we are seeing happening today.

So, what is YOUR solution?

While I do believe that retraining is the long-term solution, short-term there is a need to uncover your motives. So, I would like to start by asking this question:

“What is the ONE MOST IMPORTANT thing that you are looking for when it comes to your next job?”

To answer this, write down everything that is important to you, each on a piece of paper. And be specific when you do this (meaning, don’t simply say, “Good salary” when you really mean “A salary of no less than $8,000 per month”.)

Next, sort the list from the most important to the least. Make sure you spend as much time on this; and be critical. If you need, get your spouse or your good friend to help you.

When you are done, focus on the first item on your list and ask yourself, “If I only had one thing from my job, is this REALLY what I want from it?”

If the answer is no, you will need to do the sorting again. If it is “yes”, then you can go on to the next step and ask yourself…

“What are ALL THE WAYS I can do to achieve the one most important thing in my job?”

When you are done with this, then move down to the next most important thing and identify EVERYTHING you can do to achieve that. (It is okay to repeat what you said earlier.) Continue down the list until you either have exhausted it all, or you have come to a point when it no longer is too important.

Finally, when you have completed your list with everything you can do with that, look for repeated activities, the more the better! For example, if you find the activity, say, “Start a consultancy business helping new companies set up in Shenzhen” appeared in ALL the points of what was important for you, then this may point you to what you need to do. You need to be open with the suggestion and with how to make it happen. After all, everything that you have tried has not worked. Perhaps it is time to embrace something new?

Seek help

So, Crest, how does this sound? I want to quickly state some caveats in this article. (1) I am not a career counselor, (2) This activity was a product of my thoughts and is not something that someone else might do, (3) after doing this, you should still seek out a professional you can help you make it happen. In the end, my suggestion here is simply just that – a suggestion. If it works for you, please use it. If it doesn’t, I hope the thinking has led you to something new.

All in all, I don’t claim to be a career guidance counselor, and I do advise you to seek more help. But if this helps you, do share with all our readers what it has done for you. And readers, if this helps YOU, why don’t you share that too?

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