Friday, September 21, 2012

It’s Just a Job

You have to hand it to cab drivers throughout the world for providing some of the most interesting bits of wisdom at the least expected of moments. Yesterday (19 September, 2012), I met a cab driver with a story to tell.

Cab drivers in Singapore are usually older men who ended up driving taxis as a last resort. Speak to enough of them and you’ll find that they’ve been retrenched from elsewhere and had no other way of making a living. This is probably the only job in Singapore that is restricted for the natives.

My driver was different. He was four years younger than me. He was educated (diploma in mechanical engineering from Singapore Polytechnic), and  he chose to go into taxi driving – this was a chap who had a job in a German engineering company and then quit once they offered him a supervisors role.

Unlike the majority of cab drivers, this chap liked his job except for the fact that it killed he chances with the chicks. He pointed out that he would meet girls, get chatting and the moment he revealed he was a cab driver they’d refuse to speak to him. His point was, “I don’t see what’s wrong with being a taxi driver. It’s an honest living.”

This point struck home. In the last decade that I’ve lived in Singapore, I’ve often found that you are what you do for a living. It’s not enough to make an honest living. You’re supposed to do something that is ‘worthy’ of what everyone else expects you to do.

I remember returning to Singapore after university and selling antiques at five bucks an hour. It wasn’t great but it was cash in hand every day and money that I earned and didn’t take from Dad.

After a while Dad had to say, “Much as I respect you wanting to work, I’d rather you focus on building your career.”  It didn’t take long for me to realize what he meant. The market place is brutal. Within six-months of graduation, one should have ones foot in an industry – which means either working for the government or a respectable company.

I had to learn some harsh truths about job hunting. To be it was a numbers game until Gerard Lim; former General Manager of Leo Burnett’s Singapore explained things. He pointed out that I would “Never” be considered for jobs in things like “tele-marketing” (though I did have a stint in a call centre). I thought it was because I had “no experience.” He told me it was because I was “too good.” As a graduate, particularly one from a prestigious college, nobody would stay in such a job for long and so there was no point hiring me.

As far as the world was concerned, I was something because I had a degree and I was therefore expected to do only a certain type of job. This in turn meant that I would only mix with a certain social circle and builds my life from there.

My peers in the agency game or even from the army and university have lived the lives that their jobs and education expected them to live. Every PR agency professional I’ve worked with moved from a smaller agency to a bigger one and a few have gone into the client side. They have lots of friends from the profession and even married within the profession.

In many ways, the Western world is more relaxed about what you do for a living and social mobility is more fluid. This is especially true of the “artistic” world. Every waiter in Los Angeles is an aspiring screen writer or actor who is merely doing a job to pay bills until the big break arrives. Harrison Ford (he of Han Solo and Indiana Jones fame) was a carpenter before he got his big break (Han Solo).

When I was going through long spells of unemployment, my mother would lament that I lived in Singapore and not in the West, where I could do a simple job while looking for a “career.” My sister, who lives in London, was perhaps luckier than me in this respect. She’s worked in a shop as a shop assistant for several years to help pay her bills while she did her art work.

However, even the Western world isn’t exempt from imposing expectations. My sister tells me that “Middle Class” mothers loath her. The reason is simple – she speaks with a “posh” accent which gives away the fact that she’s got a ‘public’ (to non Brits, that’s private and exclusive) school and a decent university background. To the Middle Class, someone who speaks like her should not be working in a shop.

So, where does this leave us? Well, the only thing one can do is to accept that certain things will always be a certain way. It will take time for people to change their views on certain issues. In Singapore it’s particularly tough; thanks to a culture that demands everyone’s devotion to material success.

 However, things will have to change – the population is getting greyer and jobs (particularly the nice cushy ones) are getting scarcer.  So just as people can expect to change careers within a lifetime, they also have to be prepared to take ‘ordinary’ jobs from time-to-time, just to pay the bills.  

Both employers and employees need to see this and adjust their thinking and actions towards this fact. People like me with ‘unusual’ job histories might have a future. I remember telling Frank Young co-founder of the Weekender that I didn’t think I was employable. He argued that I was VERY employable; I merely had to focus on the things I did (G2G, litigation, GE, UL, 3M and Alcon) and not where I had been (one-man-show and SME).

People like me should be encouraged by the advertising industry, where you had legends like David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy & Mather, who worked as a chef and farmer before he entered the profession at the ‘old’ age of 38. Unfortunately, the industry has become ‘standardised’ and people with job histories like Ogilvy usually lose out to fresh ‘communications graduates.’ This needs to change. Employers need to become creative at milking the value of people with ‘unusual’ job histories instead of chucking them aside in favour of people they think they can mold.

Employees or perspective job seekers need to accept that ‘any’ job has value provided one takes it positively and understands that one can pick up skills in menial jobs that will prove useful in later life.
I remember Gucharandan Das arguing that too employers expected new employees to have skills. His argument was, “You hire based on attitude and train for skills.” A person who has done menial work can be a person with the right attitude.

There’s also a case for developing and accepting that people will need to be independent. I think of my Uncle Nick (Mum’s cousin-in-law) who once had a high flying job in the City. He believes that having worked in all sorts of jobs gave him confidence that he’ll always be able to make a living and so was not beholden to employers and was therefore able to be more professional for his employers.

It’s such a shame that many of us have this mental block when it comes to appreciating the value of work. A person is not defined by his job. A job can make a person and it can say a lot about a person. Some people are more ambitious than others. However, the worth of a person and job shouldn’t be defined by a monetary value. I think of the cab driver who can’t get a date.

To me, he’s found the secret to happiness. I suspect he’s under divine protection – someone out there is weeding away the type of girls that are too shallow for him.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Price of Washing Dishes

The debate about wages took a very interesting turn this week when Sakae Sushi, a chain of conveyer belt sushi restaurants announced to the press that they were offering “dishwashers” the grand total of $3,000 a month. They started by announcing that nobody was applying for the job and the very next day they announced that they had some 300 applications for ten positions.

The issue of wages for blue collar workers is closely intertwined with that “hot topic” of the number of foreigners in Singapore – namely the ‘darkies’ from the poor parts of Asia. In a paper titled “SingaporePerspectives 2012 Singapore Inclusive: Bridging Divides” it was found that Singapore’s “excessively liberal” immigration policies had a role to play in growing wage inequality. There is the drive to attract ‘high income’ global talent, which raises incomes at the top existing concurrently to with the drive to attract ‘cheap’ labour, which brings down wages at the lower end of the market. In terms of wages, we’re a first and third world country squeezed onto 600 plus square kilometres. Working professionals compare their salaries with their counterparts in New York and London while the labourers compare their wages with Manila and Dhaka.

Labour for many menial tasks in Singapore is cheap – so much so that working professionals often live a more comfortable lifestyle than their counterparts in New York or London. Working professionals in London or New York do their own laundry or send it to the laundromat. In Singapore, most working professionals (especially working married couples) have a maid to take care of every unimaginable household chore. When I lived in London, the idea of calling an electrician was scary – electricians charged 26 pounds an hour in the late 1990s. In Singapore, it’s a given that I’d call an electrician for every small shit.

This situation has been pretty much accepted for years. However, ever since the Middle Class found its wages being squeezed, the issue of wage inequality has become a pressing one.  The internet is filled with stories about how working professionals (lawyers, bankers etc) and graduates have been forced to do all sorts of menial jobs to stay alive.
The arguments on this topic are skirting around the issue of what to do with “foreigners.” After the slap in the last election, the government has “tightened up” up rules about entry visas for the darkies (pink blotchies are still being imported on mass). The idea is simple, with fewer darkies willing to do low wage jobs at cheaper rates than the existing ones, there will be more jobs for Singaporeans, particularly those at the lower end of the social spectrum (ie the old, crippled, with prison records etc).

Unfortunately for the government, businesses, particularly the small and medium ones, are feeling that they’re being kicked in the wrong parts. They face a “labour crunch.” The business community argues that it provides lots of jobs but Singaporeans won’t do them mainly because they feel the jobs on offer are either badly paid or an invitation to be screwed royally.

The powers-that-be are in a jam. A member of the community of great minds thinks we need to “raise the wages” of the “blue collar” sector. The argument is that blue collar workers in the West are respected because they’re well paid and so we merely need up the wages of blue collar workers and before you know it, you’ll get a host of Singaporeans rushing to fill those positions.

The business community has a counter argument. If their wage bill is raised, they’ll have to find the money from elsewhere and that means prices will be raised by the time things reach the consumer. As Dr Janil Puthucheary, a Member of Parliament argues, “Are we willing to pay more just to ensure the workers get paid more?”

There are flaws in both positions. Blue collar workers in the West are expensive not because Westerners believe blue collar workers should get a lot of money. They are expensive because they are rare – despite the seemingly vast wages they earn; you don’t get a lot of people rushing to join plumbing school or electrician school.

Exploitation of the underclass is also rife in the West. Companies that offer basic plumbing services for example do charge the consumer a good deal of money. However, these are the same companies that are quite shameless about using “illegal” labour. The American agricultural sector for example, depends on illegal labour – Mexicans with no papers will do the jobs while Americans with the papers won’t (so much so that the CEO of HCL once commented that American graduates are unemployable).

On the other side, repeated calls that raising the wages of the masses in Singapore will scare away foreign investors and Singaporeans will shy away from spending more for goods and services and thus damage the economy are overblown.
Singapore is in a neighbourhood of places where labour cost will always be cheaper than in Singapore. As a result, Singapore can no longer afford to compete on price. Despite the opening up of countries with larger and cheap workforces, foreign investors still come to Singapore – our workers can compete on quality (Both 3M and Alcon used this argument about setting up a plant in Singapore).

Secondly, prices in Singapore have continued to rise and Singaporeans have not shied away from spending on certain things.

So, where does Sakae Sushi’s job offer fit into this picture? The answer is probably not a lot. While they are paying three times the wage for the dishwasher’s position, they’ve kept the hours long (9-12 hours daily for six days a week). They’ve also added additional task to the position. In short, Sakae Sushi has done exactly what the government always does – throw money at a problem without addressing the fundamental roots of the problem.

Yes, money is important. It’s better to have more of it than less. However, as many Western countries have discovered, people, after a certain point want more than just a high pay cheque or at least they’re more interested at looking at the things they have to do to earn that cheque. I believe that the people who take up the job may enjoy receiving what seems like big money for the first year or so. Later on, they’ll question whether the hours they have to give to the job are worth it.
Singapore needs to shift focus from a “kicking out foreigners to give Singaporeans jobs” to generating genuine high value jobs for the people. This will be a messy process as it will require allowing entrepreneurship to take root – a process that will be tough given Singapore’s culture of not tolerating failure.

We have to accept the fact that certain jobs are dull and mundane by their very nature. The job of washing dishes is one of them. Rather than trying to “glamorize” the job and throwing money into the job or trying to make dishwashers more productive, businesses should be allowed to either hire cheap labour or find technological solutions.

Seriously, if a job can be mechanized, why shouldn’t it be? If we go back to the example of dishwashers –the question is not whether we should encourage more Singaporeans to be dishwashers but whether we can find a Singaporean entrepreneur to find dishwashing solution suitable for Singapore – ie is there a dishwasher that will fit into Singaporean buildings and can we design one. Doing things like this requires brains and creates high paying jobs. Surely this is more valuable than creating a mass of badly paid jobs.

Then employers need to shift their mind sets for certain jobs. Jobs in the service sector like being a waiter need not be lifelong permanent positions.  In the West this is an accepted norm. I was once served by a bar girl in London who latter on got a job at Ernest & Young. Los Angeles is filled with waiters who are aspiring actors. The same jobs in those cities don’t pay better than they do in Singapore. The employers accept that the people who may be interested in filling these jobs are merely filling a temporary need. Employment for certain jobs need not be forever.

Yes, there is a need to address the growing wage gap. However, businesses and the public need to work together and a greater amount of creative thinking needs to be applied.