Article from Business Times, 15 April 2017

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Help! I'm a permanent temp

While contract workers may suffer a sense of instability, they too have agency, especially in a world that's moving in the direction of the 'portfolio warrior'

Saturday, April 15, 2017 - 05:50
By VIVIEN SHIAO

A FRIEND of mine recently got promoted after working in her company for about a year and a half. She received top grades for her performance appraisal, so there was no question about her ability. But what she found puzzling was that many of her peers - many of whom have been there for a much longer time - did not.

She later found out that three-quarters of the fellow executives in her department were actually contract workers, who get their contracts renewed yearly. Most have been stagnant for many years, never moving up the ranks or converted to full-time.

"I felt a bit awkward when they congratulated me on my promotion although I know it's not my fault," she confessed.

Another person I know has a prestigious job in a bank - but also as a contract staff. She had joined in the hopes of being converted to a full-time position, but it has not worked out. After two years, her contract was extended again for the third time. As a contract staff, she was missing out on generous bank bonuses as well as other benefits. She is now weighing her options whether to stay or go.

These are all stories told to me by Millennials who are coming to terms with the "new normal" when it comes to work.

The rise of the gig economy made up of freelancers and contract workers is not a recent phenomenon. We often hear the benefits of this contingent workforce for employers, and how such a setup can keep costs down for businesses.

But what is often not talked about is the emotional and psychological toll it takes on employees, many of whom would like some sort of stability in their careers. There is this sense of a gradual loss of control to forces bigger than themselves. The government's call to adapt and be agile in the face of economic restructuring is a necessary one, but a hard message to take in nonetheless. Our human brains are wired for certainty. Changing our mindsets, so to speak, will take time.

Paul Heng, founder and managing director of NeXT Career Consulting Group, Asia, goes one step further. He does not advocate just deep skills in just one aspect - he encourages Singapore workers to become "portfolio warriors", a term he coined.

Simply defined, a portfolio career consists of two or more activities that someone can do in order to continue to earn an income. So instead of being a one-trick pony, having a diversified skill set serves as a form of insurance to mitigate the risk of one's corporate "shelf-life" expiring earlier than expected, such as by getting retrenched.

But that being said, Mr Heng says that contract workers who are unable to secure full-time jobs may not be worse-off.

"On the reverse, it is quite possible that regular employees also face the prospects of being retrenched, sometimes for the silliest reasons such as having a bigger pay check compared to the newly hired boss who is younger. Or the boss not liking the way one talks, as a personal example from my corporate days."

To him, it's all a matter of perspective. He points out that from another angle, contract workers or freelancers enjoy greater freedom in the use of their time, learn more and network more as they work with different companies, and have lesser worries of being retrenched. While he says contractors will not get to enjoy certain benefits as they are not full-time, he believes the future of work is in contracting and the rise of the "portfolio warrior".

He offers three pieces of advice for workers to prepare for an uncertain future. The first is to develop and expand your interests. Interests, he says, drives career choices and makes the possibility of deriving personal satisfaction higher.

Second, acquire more than one set of deep skills so you have enhanced versatility to take on more than one type of contracting job.

Finally, he says, network and use social media like there's no tomorrow. "Welcome to the new world of Me, Inc," Mr Heng proclaims.

True, contract workers may seem to be on the losing end, but hoping that things will stay the same is not viable, especially if the future is clearly moving in that direction.

The truth is, employers hardly have the time and inclination to care about an employee's growth or development, unless you are seen as a superstar, which most of us are not. It is a backward mentality, but a reality nonetheless in many workplaces today.

So, like it or not, employees - temporary or full-time - must take learning and development into their own hands. Not only will they gain valuable skills, but also confidence and resilience to cope with the uncertainties ahead. That way, they will be less at the mercy of fickle employers and the winds of change. Most importantly, it gives them options that allow them to walk away from a bad deal or to negotiate for more.




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