How to Stay on Top in a Down Market
The idea of an iron rice bowl has already been made redundant. Changes in hiring practices, work habits and opportunities have shaken the face of the employment landscape globally. Coupled with increasing business cycle volatility, job security is no longer a given but has to be pursued, planned and fought for.
In Singapore, the unemployment rate has been relatively healthy in the last 15 years. It saw a downwards trend as the market picked up after the dot.com bust in 2001, and has been hovering steadily at about 2% in the last 10 years (with the exception of the economic downturn of 2009, when the annual average unemployment rate hit 3% during the global financial crisis).
Many of the world’s developed nations, such the UK and US, experience unemployment rates in the 6.5% range, with Europe’s hardest hit economies seeing a quarter of the employable workforce without jobs. In comparison, Singapore’s unemployment rate ranks amongst the very lowest. However, with a globalised workforce, maturing economy and increased regional competition, it stands to be seen if our low unemployment rate is an anomaly or uniquely Singaporean.
Economic expansion is characterised by increasing GDP and consumption. Healthy jobs creation occurs when these jobs also correspond to meet the demand for goods and services. Conversely, the opposite holds. One way to keep unemployment rate low would be to wield the tools of government monetary controls, fiscal policies and controls of asset bubbles to rein in economic overheating, thereby prolonging a boom cycle. On an individual level, we have to manoeuver intelligently, enhance our skillset and increase our value as employees.
The most straightforward approach towards becoming “recession-proof” is to enter a profession, industry or discipline that exhibits a low correlation of business activity to the business cycle. Specific professional disciplines such as audit and litigation deal in activities that occur steadily, more or less uninfluenced by GDP trends – for instance, listed companies will require an annual financial audit and people will require legal services regardless of time or season.
An equally intuitive strategy is to create more value in what you can offer. There are two possible ways of achieving this: the first is to broaden your skillset; the second is to deepen it. Increasing your breadth of knowledge will give you a greater understanding of the different processes within the company, so that you can easily grasp the big picture. Managers and executives generally view this as a valuable trait – if nothing else, possessing multiple skills and being able to take on multiple roles puts you in good stead in a downsizing exercise, where lower costs and subsequently, higher workforce productivity, may be prioritised. The other approach requires you to tread down the specialist track in order to deepen your knowledge in a specific area – through pursuing post-graduate qualifications such as an MBA, or becoming proficient in a language that enables you to better communicate with a growing foreign market. Regardless of how you choose to do so, deepening your knowledge increases your value as a subject authority, and your expert knowledge will go towards making you an indispensible employee.
Becoming indispensible to an organisation can take on many forms. One way is to climb high up enough the ladder that you join the ranks of the upper management. Upper management are often seen as indispensible as they are the key decision-makers and often regarded as the ‘soul’ of the company – thus making replacing them a trying endeavour. Generally, holding key positions or key accounts will help shield you from retrenchment during downturn periods, as potential replacements are usually difficult to find.
Another way to become indispensible is to possess the unique skillset of being able to identify gaps between a legitimate business need and available talent – thereby being able to provide organisations with invaluable information that will enable them to achieve greater growth. In this vein, an undergraduate possessing relevant skills, such as big data analysis and architecture qualifications, has a distinct advantage when looking for employment. It helps that these skills are currently in short supply in the market.
Accurately anticipating, and migrating to, industries with high growth potential is another way of ensuring continued and gainful employment for yourself. Generally, if an industry records more incorporations than deregistrations, it signals growth prospects and is well worth considering moving to or investing in. However, do take care when jumping on the bandwagon. Earlier adopters are usually the ones who gain the most, and those who hop on too late might end up simply chasing behind the crest of the wave. The flip-side approach is to identify sunset industries and avoid obsolete companies, or to find out what new ones have replaced them, and to head for those instead. For example, trends show that investors in the manufacturing industry tend to migrate from more to less developed nations, where costs are lower. Such knowledge can help one make more informed choices as to their next career move.
Picking a job function that is also a revenue-generating profit centre, or at least justifying your existence with a positive ROI (by relating your employment cost back to positive revenue generation for the company), are other ways of enhancing your job security. In times of recession, when companies have to trim excess capacity and streamline costs to stay afloat, cost centres are likely to experience the first cutbacks.
If none of the above appeals, a more passive approach could be attempted. You could simply choose to ride out the storm and roll with the punches. You will need to have some austerity measures in place, but choosing to stay put and make the most of your current situation may a decent strategy as long as you do not end up being paralysed into indolence. Keep a long-term goal in mind and work towards it, and you can think of it as the corporate equivalent of “running away to fight another day”.
Regardless of your employment goals and safeguards, fear of the unknown – especially during a recession – is daunting and there is no surefire strategy to keep your head above water. However, good work and personal ethics can make all the difference. In the sage words of renowned psychologist, George W. Crane, “There is no future in any job, the future lies in the person who holds the job.”
Tags: employment, job security, recession