One of the pressing needs from the COVID-19 induced economic crisis is the struggle to keep unemployment low. Apart from wage support for employers, my country made career services more accessible by setting up satellite centres. As a writer on career issues, it is important for me to understand the true struggles faced by readers.  I decided to volunteer my time at a centre in the heartlands to find out. Here are some key lessons I learnt.

1. There is still a lot of reliance on the government

As is to be expected in the heartlands, many jobseekers I met were older blue-collar workers. They grew up during a time when good policies and strong government leadership helped facilitate foreign investments and economic growth. Growth and investments naturally led to the creation of good job opportunities. Political rhetoric of the time used this outcome to reinforce the notion that the government was responsible for their employment. However, this diminishes the importance of individual effort and ownership in the hiring process.

When it comes to getting a job, there is an overestimation of what the government can do. Many have the impression that the jobs I referred are better than the jobs they find themselves. Others even thought that we were the ones hiring! To be honest, the help I offered was limited to shortlisting jobs matching their skills and requirements for them to apply. Any IT-literate individual who takes time to understand them could arrive at the same, or better, recommendations. Short of being the employer, not even the best recruiter can guarantee a job. Similarly, the government’s value-add is in awareness of job sources and incentivising employers to hire locals. Winning the job still comes down to personal effort.

2. Re-skilling and upskilling do not work for everyone

Besides lacking digital skills, many blue-collar workers are often not even English literate. Many started working at a young age to make ends meet, and have not returned to school since. They stayed in the same job most of their lives, honing a small handful of skills. However, they don’t have enough for retirement and still need an income to make ends meet. Asking these people in their 60s and 70s to go for re-skilling is insensitive at best. Besides financial constraints, learning itself is so slow and difficult that they often give up altogether. Even if they do manage to learn a new skill, how many employers would be willing to hire them?

One person who really stood out to me was Mr X, a driving instructor for 34 years in his 70s. Other than O-levels, his only other skill was driving. Having spent most of his time in a driving centre, he was also unfamiliar with directions. With almost no IT literacy, he found it impossible to use his smartphone for navigation. Most importantly, he was almost English illiterate. How do we even begin to upskill someone like that?

Some say the root issue is depressed wages, advocating for minimum wage and/or more comprehensive social safety nets. However, these policies incur a cost to the nation that go beyond financial sustainability. What about the individual’s sense of self-worth and value to society? Even if their financial needs are provided for, would they still feel useful and valued? Or will they fade into irrelevance and be ignored by society? There are no easy answers and we need new thinking on this.

3. Giving hope and encouragement is underrated

Being pragmatic people, my fellow citizens value tangible outcomes. For me, this meant providing at least 1 job lead they could follow-up on. Thankfully, I was able to do this most of the time. However, there were some blue- but mostly white-collar workers for whom I could not do this. Due to their unique circumstances or my lack of experience, the help I could give was limited. Beyond basic resume & interview tips or jobs & training to consider, there was little I could do. With some, I drew from my own experience and struggles to encourage them. I referred these cases for career coaching so that a full-time coach would plug the gaps in my assistance.

I may not have provided the tangible help they were expecting, but many still expressed their appreciation. They were sincerely grateful that I tried my best and gave them hope. Sometimes, the best help is not found in giving solutions, but providing the support people need to discover their own. With greater confidence and a sense of control, people are empowered to tackle their own career problems. A culture of career-aware and -empowered individuals reduces the dependence on government and externalisation of blame. It helps everyone take ownership for their career, the long-term and sustainable solution to our employment issues.

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