Skills and the fight against irrelevancy : Part 1

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 one million people with a driver’s licence.

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 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 was 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 your skills in themselves 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 in 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. I don’t know but most companies 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.

That’s why 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 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 and drawing remain my real, demonstrable and differentiated “hard” skills.

My 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.

Writing and drawing are “hard skills” that I continue to fall back on, but they cannot be solely relied upon for long-term success. What I’ve seen in my case is that they formed the foundation of future personal development and career-building.

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.

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.

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