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Bertha HarianBertha Harian


Master of nothing

My class of undergraduates told me recently that they had to do a compulsory module to get themselves “future-ready’’. They told me of how they were being taught to write a first-class resume, by filling it with stuff that employers want to read, and how to ace job interviews. I was frankly flabbergasted that undergrads would need to learn such techniques that can easily be “googled’’. A compulsory module? Sheesh. Employers would need even more skills to cut through the façade, to find the true person underneath the polish, methinks.

I think about how I have come across too many job entrants who seem to want a work-life balance even before work starts. And how they were more keen to know what the employer can do for them, rather than what they have to give to employers. Now, I suppose they will camouflage their motivations under a veneer of earnestness and politesse. And their resumes will be filled with community service and plenty of “outside courses’’ to show off their versatility, never mind that they hate them. How fake!

If there is something I wish could be taught, it is the value of having a good work ethic. Of how you can’t get that big salary and promotion at once or even in the immediate future. How you can’t compare what you do and what you get paid for with what your bosses do and get paid for. How you should start by doing the small stuff instead of insisting on “policy’’ or “strategy’’ work. In other words, never mind that fancy degree, you still have to learn to walk before you run.

This got me to thinking about the recent debates in Parliament about education, learning and training. I like what Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said about having mastery of skills. We’re no longer just talking about lifting all boats with a rising tide or creating peaks of academic excellence. We’re talking about achieving master craftsman status. It reminds of the guilds of old when the title of master is only conferred after years of apprenticeship. There are now Place, Earn and Learn programmes for the technically inclined to serve paid internships at companies and who will then be given the option to stay on the job on graduation. It’s a good thing. But what happens after that?

Amidst all that talk of mastering skills, I haven’t heard much being said about the stamina needed to become a master. What do we see today? People who job hop for an extra $50 a month, who think that their job scope is too small, who actually believe that they have flattened their learning curve in a year. How long do the young people stay on in one job these days I wonder before they get dissatisfied with its rewards or complain about “burn out’’? I think people prefer to short-cut their way to bigger pay, and that means going to the next highest bidder. I don’t know about you but I look askance at a serial job hopper, never mind their protestations that they changed jobs, switched companies to “learn something new’’ or for bigger challenges. They will say that they are “mobile’’. But if you don’t stay put in one job long enough to know everything there is to know about it, how do you even begin to say that you mastered something?

Because of the tight job market, it’s easy to find jobs that pay $50 extra. What happens is that even the mediocre gets rewarded in the frantic hunt for heads. So after a few years of job switching, someone has a fancy job title which does not reflect the brain power or the skills the title implies. Think about it. Don’t you know people like this? Then there is another group who like the glamour of working in big companies, so that everyone else will go waah no matter that they are a small cog in the machinery. I even know of well-educated people who do not even want to name the companies they work in, because they are small SMEs.

Moving from white collar to blue collar…Look at the aircon repairman, the car mechanic or the plumber. These are small SMEs who complain about not being able to get foreign labour. The locals don’t think it’s worthwhile training to be the best aircon repairman, mechanic or plumber. If everyone thinks that way, how can we pay them more for better service and expertise. In fact, they prefer to go into the crowded F&B market, preferably to be their own boss.

Yup, a mindset change is needed. A new eco-system. An improved work culture. They sound like meaningless phrases that are now so often bandied about. Yet the problem is real. Nobody will be a master of something when people keep jumping ship for a few bucks more. At the moment, the prize is not about being at the top of your game in the long-run and earn big bucks, but a bigger and bigger pay packet as quickly and as frequently as possible.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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