Skills and the fight against irrelevancy

This blog post was written about four months ago but it took me a long time to think through it and observe more about what was happening to my generation of people hitting their 40s. Retrenchment, job dissatisfaction, disruption and so much uncertainty. This first part deals with some observations of modern work and skills, and the next part will cover my reflections on all the advice I have received on these matters. This is a long rambling article, somewhat reflective of the constant churn of thoughts and emotions in my head.

I recently came across an online story of an SAF army regular who said he was changing jobs to become an Uber driver so that he could spend more time with his family. I did not read the story in detail, but the story angle stuck in my mind. (Sorry, I lost the URL link)

In Singapore, Uber and GrabTaxi have vastly improved the taxi network by matching users with drivers in an efficient manner. Many people have also found Uber to be a good fallback when they lose their jobs, or an opportunity to make better use of the inactive family car. Some young folks are using Uber as a way to possess a car for driving when their own finances won’t allow it.

Putting food on the table is critical. However, what happens to your personal development when you become a crowd-sourced driver?

In those long hours of driving on the roads, you do not learn or exercise any new and valued skills (apart from learning how to deal with passengers of all sorts).

Driving is a generic skill that can be picked up once you reach the legal age and enroll in driving school. There are about 600,000 cars on the road here, so I’d say there are at least one million people with a driver’s licence in Singapore.

The army guy appeared to be a young chap in his 20s or 30s – why would he want to take up a job where he is competing with thousands of other candidates wielding the same generic driving skill, for thousands of customers wanting just an affordable and quick ride?

And it is pretty obvious to anyone who understands the economics of crowd-sourcing – the modus operandi of the crowd-sourcing employer is to reduce costs and increase profits by hiring the cheapest possible labor for the job.

It is not a bad deal to be a crowd-sourced driver if you are retired or have a lot of spare time (eg. housewives). But I am more wary about it being a full-time job, because you get stuck in a mono-skilled career with high risk of getting into road accidents and blood circulation issues. If you have decent paper qualifications and other usable skills, you need to consider every other possible option first.

Incentives were attractive in the early days of Uber and Grab in Singapore, but these incentives are being cut now that the pool of on-demand drivers has grown significantly.

And let’s ask – how many taxi drivers can the population support? I do not have the answer, but that’s not really the focus of my piece here.

For the longest time, I have pondered on the issue of skills in the workplace.

Jim Rohn, a famous entrepreneur and motivational speaker said : “Don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better. Don’t wish for less problems, wish for more skills. Don’t wish for less challenge, wish for more wisdom.”

More skills, but what type of skills?

Hard skills vs soft skills

I hardly hear people discussing the difference between hard and soft skills. People tend to talk about the jobs they like or the money they hope to earn.

You may have spent decades studying in school, but do you have any unique or specialized skill to offer?

You may say you can provide “value-added” contributions but what you can do today may have little value to the employers of today and tomorrow. It is not your fault, but you need to recognize the situation we are in.

An experienced doctor, illustrator, lawyer, tailor, mechanic, cook, and coder/software engineer all possess what I call “hard skills” – refined through years of study, practice and improvement.

They embarked (or were allowed to embark) on this career path at a young age, and probably have to stick to it their whole lives, but they provide basic and critical services to society… until robots can do the same.

In contrast, many people go through school and the workplace learning to be a jack of all trades and master of none. (Or worse, they learn to just “manage people”)

Let’s take the example of people who work in the line of marketing.

Many young marketers cannot personally execute the essential ingredients of their marketing campaign because they lack the raw “hard skills” – the copywriting, the artwork creation, the composition, the website coding and so on. These bits are often outsourced to colleagues or agencies who possess the hard skills.

The marketer then finds himself exercising “soft skills” – co-ordinate budgets, work with multiple agencies, develop a marketing message and influence other skilled people to produce the content according to company or promotional guidelines.

Marketing as people practice it today is thus largely a “soft skills” role that is valuable, but not as difficult to attain as a “hard skill” as say dedicated copywriting, graphic design or data analytics.

Ironically, a marketer is often paid more than a writer for the same hour of work in the office, because in many companies, hard skills in themselves are respected but not valued much either.

The marketer may be seen to be more valuable because of his ability to co-ordinate different elements to drive the last mile of the marketing campaign.

Yet, despite the important role they play in helping to sell products, marketers are often the first people to be retrenched during a company’s downsizing – they are not profit centers and there are plenty of junior marketers to replace older ones when budgets get cut.

Bosses forget though, that basic marketing is easy, but advanced marketing is no walk in the park!

(Yes, I’m rambling already but you see the various contradictions that keep popping up?)

To make marketer’s lives harder, the online and offline market today is flooded with marketers, marketing consultants and marketing assets. There are so many startups offering marketing services, free downloads and artwork that it is scary.

What differentiates one marketer from another, if everyone can download a template, carry out basic digital ad placements, order generic collateral production and so on?

Creativity (a much abused term by uncreative educators and politicians) can be a differentiator, but that in itself is too subjective to measure. Throughout history, many creative artists have died poor and maligned.

To survive, we have always needed a combo of hard skills and soft skills. This has held true for millennia, and is even more critical in today’s environment.  

For example, a copywriter is more valued when he has an eye for design and can work with artists to blend text and visuals more effectively. But is he the marketer or still the copywriter?

A top chef is more valuable when he is also a good procurement guy, able to source for the best ingredients from multiple suppliers. But is he the kitchen leader or still the top cook?

The lines between skills or roles are often blurred but it is always clear when someone presents more value to the company than the next guy. (Hint : Don’t be the next guy!)

But another thing I’ve noticed as we’ve moved towards a more developed, knowledge economy – everyone wants soft skills and nobody discusses much about hard skills.

Educated but unemployed

Recently a young man asked me if he should apply for a public relations job.

I asked him “Can you write well?” He said he could not.

“So why are you applying for a job that requires you to have strong writing skills as a basic prerequisite?”

He couldn’t answer. He also did not know where to start gaining the skill of writing well.

In advanced countries like South Korea and Taiwan, many young graduates are ending up unemployed due to fast-changing job landscapes and mismatched skill-sets. This Straits Times story is a good read.

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Youth unemployment across Asia, according to the Straits Times.

About 66% of South Koreans aged 25-34 are degree holders, and the number is 70% for Taiwan and 60% for Singapore.

Yet in the first two countries, unemployment is high at 9.5% and 12.73% respectively. Singapore has a relatively low 5.2% unemployment rate, but the same dangers face our youth. Like Korea, our economy has become heavily reliant on big multinational companies (MNCs) and those are the same companies cutting thousands of jobs when the economy goes bad (like now).

One would be quick to blame youth’s unemployment on their high expectations of pay and status (or some say, the Strawberry Generation effect).

At first, I thought perhaps these young people have spent too much time promoting their general data-collection skills, group presentation skills and the ability to score well in exams. I have to check myself because it is so easy to criticize the Strawberries – I then become no better than the grumpy old farts I loathe myself.

Then I reflected on my own generation and my predecessors – we were also schooled in general ways, so where did we learn and hone our hard skills?

Maybe because the workplace was less complicated then. People were expected to multi-task less and focus more on specific job roles and applications. No matter which year it is, most companies still need people with specific skills and performance levels.

Our SG education system keeps asking students to develop “higher-order” thinking skills, as if everyone should become a philosophical CEO or financial wizard after they graduate.

But you do not need to be a highfalutin strategist when you focus on developing hard skills, you just need to keep plugging away at what you’ve chosen to do, and improving every day.

Our local school curriculum is filled with so much unnecessary content, teachers do not have time to finish teaching anything (since expensive tuition will save the day, right?).

Many university students graduate with weak foundation in language and little or no properly-developed vocational skills that will allow them to get into entry-level jobs that are often in abundance. (Frankly, I’m quite tired about writing about the education system, but a lot of our current workplace issues start in school)

When I was in secondary school, I often got annoyed with learning mathematical concepts like logarithmic equations and differentiation. Why did I have to move all these tiny numbers around? Why do I have to solve so many complex equations?

My friend Daniel recently pointed out that he actually went to investigate what differentiation was used for and he found out it is largely used in shipbuilding. Okay…. I need to check if he’s right, but he probably isn’t far from the truth given the general uselessness of mathematical differentiation in my waking hours.

The thousands of hours doing maths worksheets and assessments inculcated a discipline for numeric accuracy when creating spreadsheets…but little else. My school’s maths curriculum just added to the sheer amount of time needed to study for exams, and took away my free time to explore my other interests like reading, writing and drawing.

And guess what, even at 40 years old and having held many different roles at work…writing, drawing and perhaps photography, remain my real, demonstrable and differentiated “hard” skills.

My newer ability to build complex and accurate Excel spreadsheets is not a differentiated skill among peers in the same work circles. But the ability to make sense of the data and come out with solutions or improvements is what my bosses need from me. “Can I deliver what they need?” I often ask myself and I worry when I cannot. 

Writing and drawing are “hard skills” that I continue to practice, but they cannot be solely relied upon for long-term success. So many writers and artists have gone out of jobs and retreated into non-art related careers. What I’ve seen in my case is that these skills formed the foundation of future personal development and career-building, they opened up the possibilities for me to branch into.

Don’t assume skill-building is easy though.

I pursued the skill of writing during my journalism days, but I also learned that others (eg. fierce copy editors) had to constantly discipline me into becoming a writer good enough to have nationally published stories. This was a process that took several years, not months.

Many young journos start out having their early stories completely re-written by their editors due to the lack of house-style or brevity. It is only through relentless daily critique and multiple revisions that journos can write stories that do not get overhauled by others.

So the skill of writing is not innate, but something that you need to practice and be throughly schooled in. Somebody kicked my ass when I was a young writer, I carry on doing it today to myself. That is why I continue to write on this blog – once you stop using a skill, you will lose it.

Discipleship and apprenticeship under top masters of the trade, followed by relentless practice, is required for hard skill development. And common sense will tell us the same goes for soft skills too.

I thought about this further, and concluded that once you figure out the skills bit, the next most critical things we need now as individuals are “hard advice” and “mentorship”.

I’ll cover that in the next post.

6 Replies to “Skills and the fight against irrelevancy”

  1. An interesting and thought-provoking (and yes, there are many hehe) read. Will just leave with one observation tho (it’s late where I am now): regarding the part above you recounted your own experience of burying your head in those tons and tons of Secondary maths worksheets.

    It reminds me of another observation you made in an earlier blogpost, about the Singapore education system: that it is something almost entirely designed to filter out the most suitable people for their civil service.

    As a regular reader of this blog who has been enlightened by your numerous incisive observations, yet I must say this is probably the observation that has been the most deeply etched in my mind. And to hear your struggles with logarithms/differentiation/whatever, I now think if one of the areas where our ed. system can be improved would be for our planners to shift greater emphasis into the real-world applications of these seemingly arcane concepts.

    Because as I look back from the perspective of adult now, I think there is a value to the subjects that were covered in public school level; because areas like mathematics, sciences and languages are basically universal laws; trust me, they (ah, yes, even differentiation) DO have applications in all our lives – regardless of which non-shipping-related profession you end up in. Yet TBH I was never interested in my studies back then. Perhaps the flaw here is that our system is incredibly “market-driven”, meant to draw out the brightest teenagers who make it past the post first, with its function of properly designing the syllabus in a clear, holistic way, such that it can be appreciated and absorbed by the rest of us non-genuises, merely an afterthought. Take a look at our textbooks – they’re were crude and ugly, and still are. Surely we can do better, no?

    I’m not sure if what I said was correct, but perhaps one implication of all these, I fear, is that it creates a whole lot of people who see things mostly superficially, with a limited worldview, and are adrift at sea when it comes to planning for the long-term – knowing neither what challenges lie ahead or what they what to achieve.

    In a way, this is kinda how I feel about myself. That said, yet I am also kinda optimistic about the future – technology will eliminate a lot of jobs, but I believe it will create more of them too (we just haven’t realised what they are yet). To summarise, I think for anyone who is willing to work hard, embrace change, and is enterprising – the future’ll always has a place for them. So look up Ian, and blog on!

    1. Thanks for all the feedback! I’m sorry but I still don’t see any application of mathematical differentiation or logarithmic equations in my life. Perhaps you can show me some examples?

  2. In this particular case of the army regular becoming a uber driver, it is not so bad. Although driving is a generic skill, it still provides provide for the family. And it affords the ex-soldier flexibility – he still has a car and can earn an income with it.

    What about being a soldier – what can of skill is that? It is such a specific and specialist skill that it has no other employer in Singapore. Okay, maybe he can become a security officer in a condo or a retail mall. His skill is so specialist that he has to join another army. Which country will want to employ him?

    1. I’ve seen many army guys move on to other private sector jobs because they do have transferable skills in operations, logistics, training, project management etc. Being a soldier is not a skill in itself, it’s a vocation with many learning opportunities, it just depends on what you make of it.

  3. Ian, I am new to your blog but I find your article most interesting. I am nearer to 60 so I find your article of relevancy even more important to my generation.

    This is how I look at it:
    1. To make ourselves relevant is more a question of attitude than a question of soft vs hard skills.

    Eg. Counter service staff say in McDonald’s or food outlets. I find generally the ilder staff are more accomodating and patient. They may not be fast but they are steady and takes their job more seriously. I know its a generalisation but we can always compare notes.

    Another example would be book keeping. The older ones knows a trick or two even if they are not familiar with excel sheets and accpac software. I have never heard them tell me the computer is down when I ask for reports.

    2. My second opinion on relevancy is environment. Today’s environment is very much about speed and multitasking. However I always ask about accuracy and depth of knowledge. Younger people of today understands the digital better but do they really?

    Eg. In the advertising world today I find most of the creative people are nothing more than very good technicians. They can photoshop almost anything and is totally reliant on stock photos. I can hardly find a good freehand illustrator today. My photographer friends also tell me how they lament the lost art of light painting in photography. They tell me most shoots today are done with high exposure and then photoshopped to put in the details and shadows.

    3. Craftsmen, Supervisors and Managers. Every company I have managed (I became a GM at age 32) needs all 3. The problem is every one wants to become a manager. This is what our education and our government tells our young ones. Look at our scholars. They did not achieve much but they get paid a lot.

    Our education system should filter out our young ones early into those who are good with their hands and those who are good with their heads. In Switzerland for instance a good technician earns as much as an engineer.

    The current problems we have with the older generation is how do use their decades of experience and their devades of life experiences. Our HR professionals like young employees but what we need are employees with experience. Why are decades of experience seen as irrelevant? Perhaps some of the HR professionals who read thia would like to jump in and give your opinion.

    1. Hi Steven,

      You are right from your perspective and experiences and we do need to share notes. Companies today demand a lot more from their workers. A good attitude to work and learning is a basic requirement, but specific skills and competencies make the difference between being hired or not. For eg. Data sets today require pivot table skills (which I didn’t get to learn till I was 31 because I had no choice). Yes, counter service staff are a good example of positive attitude but they are not a good example of the skills required to earn a certain amount of salary for people to pay their modern exorbitant HDB mortgages (“affordable” public housing yo) and such.

      You are also right that it’s hard to find a good old-school illustrator today. But it doesn’t mean they don’t exist among the young. There are many young and talented freehand illustrators who are in demanding design jobs that require high speed turnaround of art collateral that doesn’t require detailed drawings, but manipulation of stock or company asset images. I know because I’ve worked with artists for years and when deadlines loom, nobody’s going to ask for a nice crosshatch shading done by hand. You create the Adobe Illustrator layers as per client demands, tune the gradients, align the kerning, fix the color calibration and it’s off to print. The artists wisely leave their hand drawings to their personal projects because the world needs “technicians” more than “painters” or “sketchers” for day-to-day work.

      Your photographer friends have their right to grieve, but as an ex-photographer with many pro photog friends, I can tell you the art of drawing with light is alive and well with the true professionals. The key difference is their mastery of the new tools. When combined with the latest technologies (which are digital evolutions of burning and dodging in the old darkroom), they can create works of art not possible just five years ago. That is progress, but as always, the noobs always abuse the tools without understanding the fundamentals. There is much sneering at digital filters, only because they have been overused. If you visit my public FB profile, you will find my Samsung S7 or iPhone photos that have been lightly edited but taken with old-school techniques. And yes, shoots done with over-exposed settings is always a possible indication of poor skill, but guess what, a lot of brides like it when you can’t see their wrinkles and whiteheads!

      There is a market for both wannabe amateurs and proven professionals, and they get to charge as much money as people are willing to pay them. However, they still get assignments because regardless of skill, they do offer the market what is wanted, even if crass in quality.

      I think there is much value in having decades of experience, but I’m also a firm believer that it’s your current ability to deliver what the company or industry wants that really counts. Experience allows us to make wise decisions, to manage people well, to link disparate things together, but experience in itself cannot replace the impact and output of specific skills, knowledge and capabilities that may not have existed 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

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