“I Know Too Much, But I’ve Done Too Little.” — Retrenched Gen X-ers Share Their Struggles


“Hi Mitchell, thank you for your interest in our company! We have considered your application but have found other candidates who are a better match for the job. We wish you all the best in your job seeking journey.”

This was an email Mitchell had received many times. The 43-year-old former logistics manager had been on a job hunt since his retrenchment a few months earlier when Singapore entered circuit breaker.

This wasn’t Mitchell’s first time being retrenched either. He was previously retrenched slightly more than 10 years ago during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Then he was retrenched again in 2015, when his company unexpectedly went bankrupt.

Picking up odd jobs and learning again

Unlike millennials who may be facing their first retrenchment since starting work, Mitchell, a Gen X-er, was all too familiar with what to do in times like these.

The first time round, Mitchell picked up odd jobs, working in security and as a taxi driver for about a year before finding heading back into logistics and operations at a transport company. On his second retrenchment, Mitchell decided to head back to school. After all, the government had always gone on about the importance of lifelong learning.

It seemed like the perfect time for Mitchell as well. He had enough savings to do a distance-learning programme, his wife was earning enough to support the family, and he would be able to spend more quality time with his two young children, aged two and five at the time.

He signed up for a master’s degree in logistics and supply chain management to gain insights on global and digital strategies. During his classes, he was introduced to blockchain technology and then decided to enrol for courses to support his interest in going into the field.

But that is where his dreams come to an end. In the months that followed his graduation, Mitchell tried hard to find a job in blockchain technology but was met mostly with dead ends. He went back to logistics management again, hoping to be able to introduce blockchain technology in management strategies but the opportunity never arose.

Now, five years on and retrenched again, Mitchell sat on his blockchain technology certifications, never having used any of the knowledge he had learnt, although they do look impressive on his LinkedIn profile.

So what went wrong?

While most of us would have moved on from receiving an email like that, Mitchell decided to get to the bottom of his rejection. He called the company and asked to speak with the last person he interviewed with, just to ask where he fell short. Surprisingly, the senior director was receptive to speaking with Mitchell and gave him an answer Mitchell was not expecting.

“You’re qualified in many areas, but you just don’t have enough experience in blockchain management,” said the senior director to Mitchell.

Mitchell tried to justify his shortcomings — he had been trying to get into blockchain management, but no one was willing to take a chance on him. He was also willing to take a significant pay cut or start out at an executive level to get his footing in the industry.

The senior director levelled with Mitchell on having to start from the bottom. The pay cut would mean a drop of income of nearly 60 per cent of what he was previously earning. To reach a similar paygrade to what he was earning in his previous job, he would have to work maybe five to seven years, assuming he would be regularly promoted.

“If you’re really eager to get into blockchain management, we could arrange something for you, but I’m letting you know now the financial situation you will be in for the next few years,” he told Mitchell over the phone.

Mitchell told the senior director he would think about it and went to speak with his wife, and after lengthy discussions, decided to take up the entry-level position.

This seems like a happy ending, but Mitchell’s situation isn’t entirely unique. Being overqualified and underexperienced is something many in his generation are facing.

Overqualified and underexperienced

In a survey we handed out to Generation X-ers (those born between 1965 and 1980), 16 out of 65 believed that they were overqualified for the jobs that they were applying for. Of the 16, 12 had qualifications beyond a bachelor’s degree and 10 agreed that they have been excluded from jobs because of a lack of experience, even though they met the educational requirements of the job.

It is an odd limbo to be in, especially when you consider the fact that the government regularly pushes the gainfully employed to remain relevant in their industries by reskilling and retraining. Yet, it seems like employers are the ones who are slow on taking up PMETs looking for a career switch.

So why aren’t employers keen?

“The main concern of employers over overqualified candidates is that they will leave when better opportunities arise,” Adrian Tan, Work Tech Practice Leader at PeopleStrong tells TheHomeGround Asia. “[Employers think that these candidates] will start typing their resignation letter when whispers of a better job offer come along.”

Adrian thinks, however, that employers may be overthinking the situation, and that employers could do more to prevent good employees from leaving.

“[Employers] should not worry about people leaving since they will leave anyway, but while they are in the company, there are multiple opportunities for the company to show [employees] why they shouldn’t.”

He also said that if overqualified candidates were so high in demand, it is unlikely that they would be applying blindly for jobs. “Chances are, new opportunities will not come rushing to your candidate once they sign off on [the employer’s] contract.”

What the government is doing

Despite such unfounded fears, the Singapore government is working hard to change all that.

As news of economic downturn affected jobs and unemployment rates hit an all-time high, the National Jobs Council took a stand to pay special attention to middle-aged workers. Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnum, who chairs the National Jobs Council, said in a statement that the government is providing strong support for employers to continue employing middle-aged workers.

“Every employer must be part of our national team in overcoming the job challenge. Those who prefer to stay on the sidelines will find themselves being asked tough questions by the Ministry of Manpower about how they are abiding by the Fair Consideration Framework,” he said.

The government even has mid-career pathways programmes for those stuck in this situation. PMETs can sign up for company attachments or company training, where they can “gain meaningful industry-relevant work experience through company attachments” or “boost [their] employability through six to 12 months full-time training delivered by reputable companies”.

The cons of an adult “internship”

These attachments, however, do not offer a permanent job at the end of the day and are a risk to take up. “The job searching process is already so tiring and having to go through this every six months would be very draining,” Mitchell says.

Another downside? The programmes do provide allowances but only from $1,400 to $3,000 per month, which can be a significant drop for those who were in senior positions.

“Although I took up a lower paying job, not everyone can take up an ‘internship’ for so little money when there are bills to pay,” he explains. The decision was a tough one that involved a lot of sacrifices, such as pressing pause on some of his daughters’ after-school activities and selling the family car. He also believes it is why many will eventually return to the same kinds of jobs they were doing or pick up odd jobs to make ends meet.

But Adrian offers a wake-up call to PMETs who might be turned off by the low pay. “If a [higher qualification] is not required by the job, there is no way one can expect to be paid more just because [they have one]. Pay grades are pegged to the role… hence a PhD holder cannot apply for an admin/clerk role and expect to be paid the same as a professor,” he says.

So what can those in limbo do?

Adrian suggests that overqualified and underexperienced candidates should show how their qualifications can be used within the prospective job in a unique way. “If the role does not ask for an MBA but you have one, showcase during your interview how you are able to apply those learnings so you can emphasise the extra value you bring to the table,” he shares.

A career coach we spoke to also shared that there are many small things one could do to show that these underutilised skills were being put to good use.

“You could write articles on the industry you are trying to enter or write responses to articles in these fields on LinkedIn,” she recommended. In this way, it shows off to potential employers that while the experience is lacking, you are still up to date with industry knowledge.

She also stressed the importance of continuous learning as well: “The benefits of getting certified are multi-fold — firstly, it updates you on current best practices, and secondly, it allows you to network with those within the industry, which could lead to further career opportunities.”

While these will take time and effort, the career coach believes that these efforts will eventually snowball into something useful.

“No one walks into a job with the right experience, anyway, so why not grow your own experience and show why that is relevant?”

That’s sage advice.




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