Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020 (Deeper #6)

This year will have lasting negative effects on the graduating class if we don't pitch in and help.

Dear readers,

I recently read a study about how Americans who entered the job market in 1982 (during a mild recession) faced significantly larger challenges compared to many of their older and younger counterparts throughout the rest of their lives, especially past middle age. They suffered from poorer health, more difficult job markets, and more deaths.

This is pretty frightening to me considering many young people I know are coming of age during this time. In a bunch of Whatsapp groups with my friends, we’ve shared our fears about not being able to find jobs, losing the great ones we currently have, and struggling to support our families. In fact, one of my best friends cried over the phone last week because of a rumor that her office was going to let people go entirely rather than cutting hours as promised.

And yet, during this time, so many people have shown incredible empathy. At least once a day, someone asks, “How can I help you? Is there anything I can do to help? Is there anything you need?”

The sheer heart and solidarity I've seen during this time has given me hope that a better future is possible in the hands of our newest generations of adults.


people throwing hats on air

Young people are facing a crisis. The International Labour Organization reported that more than one in six young people have stopped working since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and those who still have a job have had their working hours cut by about 23%

Though countries are slowly plodding towards a new normal, the general pessimism among younger generations—which can be seen from their half-joking memes about the impossibility of car and home ownership—is deeply ingrained within the collective psyche.

Many tend to rag on millennials and Gen Z’ers for failing to save up money, for spending too much on avocado toast and Eggs Benedict—but this may be indicative of a deeper societal issue.

TL;DR: We need to equip young people with the skills they need, and encourage governments and businesses to believe in and invest in their talent.

  • Governments need to prepare social support programs now, before the crisis ends

  • Learning institutions are partnering with governments to provide help

  • Businesses are trying to commit to more hires + taking advantage of grants

  • Tips to share

    • Start a side hustle and leverage the power of your networks

    • Advocating for yourself

    • Invest in skills rather than shiny degrees

    • Try not to take too much boomer advice

The pandemic is a difficult time for everyone. But for younger workers, it’s an ideal time to learn new, in-demand skills, take advantage of local learning initiatives, and improve their employability.

Governments need to prepare social support programs now, before the crisis ends

A 2009 paper released by M. Ramesh, Professor of Social Policy at the University of Hong Kong says, “The steep deterioration in economic and social conditions triggered by the 1997–98 crisis could have been significantly avoided if there had been a social protection system in place to cushion the blow.”

Business newspaper article

Rather than scrambling to deal with catastrophes as they happen—and fumbling everything in the process—governments with these plans could mitigate much of the financial and social chaos. 

(Basically, Professor Ramesh recommended Business Continuity Planning for governments.)

This is admittedly tough in Southeast Asia. The effects and benefits of this type of planning will not be felt until the next time a crisis happens, which makes it difficult for some governments to justify funding them in the first place. Varied responses among local governments means quick recovery for some, and lasting impacts for others. 

Thailand was a good example of crisis management during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis: A 61.4 billion baht (roughly US$1.5 billion) plan that created or protected 1.5 million jobs focused on:

  • Ensuring that consumer products remained affordable

  • Maintaining employment levels in the industrial sector by reducing social security contributions and encouraging exports

  • Stricter laws against illegal immigration

  • Promotion of a rural, agriculture-based economy

These measures helped Thailand recover by 2001, and the country repaid its debts to the IMF in 2003, four years ahead of schedule. Countries like Indonesia weren’t so lucky—to this day, the rupiah has never recovered:

Indonesian Rupiah Is In Trouble, Again :: The Market Oracle ::

We can’t deny the governments’ role supporting the job market and encouraging businesses to reopen. It’s time to learn from the crisis and push for broader financial reforms, increased protection and support for fledgling SMEs, and learning opportunities for the newly unemployed when possible.

Learning institutions are partnering with governments to provide help

Countries around ASEAN have committed to various initiatives to help potential hires and the businesses who wish to employ them.

Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat unveiled plans at the end of May 2020 to provide 21,000 traineeships for first-time jobseekers and another 4,000 for unemployed mid-career workers.

The country’s SGUnited Traineeships Programme is providing S$100 million to help fresh graduates acquire much-needed experience. Students can benefit from a 70% subsidy on courses offered by SkillsFuture Singapore, with the rest paid by their universities. And both NTU and SMU hosted virtual career fairs to try and help graduates get hired for several-hundred vacancies.

China launched a 100-day campaign that offered more subsidies for small businesses and expanded hiring for state-owned enterprises, schools and expanding army enlistment. Universities in Hong Kong set up relief funds to support and increase job offers, and drew on the power of their alumni networks to offer part-time jobs and internships to new graduates.

In the Philippines, the Department of Finance allocated around 2 billion pesos for wage subsidies and financial support for affected MSMEs. Another P1.2 billion has been directed to the Social Security System (SSS) to cover unemployment benefits. And just several days ago, the Philippine's House of Representatives passed numerous funding bills totalling trillions of pesos, designed to relieve strain on educational systems and stimulate MSMEs.

Indonesia launched a trial of its Prakerja program to mixed results in April, smack in the middle of the pandemic. The pre-employment program acts as a social safety net for unemployed participants aged 18 years or above—both fresh graduates and those who have recently lost their jobs. 

Pendaftaran Kartu Prakerja Gelombang 2 Dibuka pada 20-23 April ...

One key aspect of the program is the opportunity to participate in training courses; the government has partnered elsewhere with edtech companies to offer courses at reduced costs. Unfortunately, many have complained that the courses are overpriced (despite discounts of up to 50%) and don’t actually offer any real, relevant skills. 

Governments need to actually talk to the fresh grads in question in order to offer them opportunities and support that will actually help. This is the risk that always comes with policymaking—without any actual insight from the community or group in question, there’s a big chance that any resulting policies will simply waste millions of dollars.

Businesses are trying to commit to more hires + taking advantage of grants

The situation has also made it difficult for businesses to make new full-time hires. Larger companies can do their part by following the footsteps of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, who have opted to continue their online summer programs and traineeships. 

Businesses need to take initiative and seek out government subsidies and grants where necessary so they can continue to hire. We’re already facing a major skills gap, and we will have to invest in talent sooner or later.

Citi has guaranteed that participants who successfully complete summer intern programmes will be offered a full-time job next year as long as they fulfil minimum requirements. This kind of traineeship-to-full-time initiative would be incredibly meaningful for a desperate graduating class facing high competition for available jobs.

For small businesses, however, this kind of initiative isn’t so easy. MSMEs and startups don’t have as much runway as their corporate counterparts. The limited visibility on whether business and revenue will pick up in the next few months makes it difficult for them to commit to long-term, full-time hires. MSMEs will also need heightened support from their local governments to ensure that they can survive the year.

Tips to share with your younger connections

Start a side hustle and leverage the power of your networks

It’s so easy to get online nowadays, no matter where you’re from. This lowering barrier-to-entry to the digital world and a new shared online culture has increasingly global ramifications. 

The United States’ #BlackLivesMatter movement on Twitter, for example, triggered unique domestic awareness movements in countries like Indonesia (#PapuanLivesMatter) and the Philippines (#JunkTerrorBill). Some fresh grads have chosen to devote their time to community service or social causes because they see this recession as a symptom of wider systemic issues. 

No matter how old you are, it’s also possible to leverage your social media network to find new opportunities. Southeast Asians seem to be big on the “Twitter do your magic” trend, which has been used to bring awareness to those in need (PH), highlight new + trendy F&B joints (SG), and fill open positions at companies (ID). You can combine this with a side hustle and use the Internet to gain traction.

Twitter Please Do Your Magic, Mantra yang Bisa Bikin Laris Lapak ...

Side hustling is a big thing among millennials and Gen Z’ers. These income streams could be anything from catering businesses to influencing (you can roll your eyes, but top influencers make bank) to selling thrifted clothes to editing photos and videos to managing social media for your friends’ brands. 

The key during the pandemic is to continue gaining knowledge and experience in any way possible, then leverage the power of their social networks to identify possible opportunities. Linda Teo, country manager at ManpowerGroup Singapore, shared that “employers will question candidates about employment gaps. It will not reflect well on fresh graduates if they are not doing anything to further their knowledge or career during this period.”

Sending out congenial Linkedin messages to recruiters or friendly cold emails to companies could be one way of gaining an internship or job during this time—taking initiative in such a way can help you differentiate from thousands of other jobseekers. (Don’t forget to make your social media profiles as interesting and respectable as possible if they follow up).

You can cultivate networks on social media at the same time you browse for memes, so there’s no reason not to build this base for the future. You never know—your next opportunity or big break could be from a fellow Twitter stan. 

Advocate for yourself

In recent years, more and more people have brought attention to inexplicable wage gaps between people of different genders or races. This has led many to advocate for greater wage transparency. 

It used to be taboo to talk about how much you were getting paid, especially with colleagues—but the fact is that you need to look out for yourself. 

Too many people accept the numbers they’re offered without complaint, because they believe it’s all they deserve or all they can get. We see it all the time everywhere, from freelance art commissions to salaried positions to independent contractor roles. Few bosses care enough to proactively offer or raise a salary, and employees need to show more solidarity in advocating fairer wages for one another.

Of course, you can’t just strut into your manager’s office and say, “I demand more pay.” Amass skills and point out your worth.

Here are some of our tips:

  • Do research beforehand and gain information whenever possible

  • Share your desired salary

  • Point out your strengths, skills, and why you believe you deserve this amount

  • Continually upskill in fields you’re passionate about, without being told to by your boss (initiative + proactivity)

  • Show that you consistently hit your goals

  • In cases where you have no idea, ask your boss—what can I do to earn higher remuneration?

Remember, though, that in times of a pandemic, the salaries you will be offered for a job will most likely be significantly lower than what you expect.

If you are cash-strapped, then it may be better to just take the job and push for a higher wage once the job market has improved. For so many people in ASEAN, surviving is a choice of accepting unfair wages now or risk having zero income for the next few months. Having the ability to choose to move or quit is a privilege that we should always remain aware of.

Invest in skills rather than degrees

This point goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. I still remember how, in the 1990s and early 2000s, parents would stress to their kids about the importance of getting a college degree. Back then, any kind of degree was seen as proof that you were better and brighter, and thus deserving of better pay. 

Oh, the good old days!

Now, more and more companies are looking for specific skill sets that they want to bring to their team rather than the sheen of a specific university’s degree. For example: because companies from all industries are digitalizing, hard skills like programming, data science, and UI/UX design are in huge demand. 

Fortunately, there are many online courses available, and educational institutions are popping up to address this skills gap. There are vacancies in tech and finance fields, so it could be a good time to double down, learn some new skills, and apply ASAP.

CoderSchool, a coding bootcamp in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, offers free part-time courses like “iOS for Engineers”, “Ruby for Engineers”, “Android for Engineers”, and “Node.js for Engineers”. Throughout the course, students will work on a project that they can then showcase in their portfolio when applying to new jobs. For total beginners or younger students, a 12-week full-time courses on full-stack web development or machine learning engineering guarantees you a job upon completion. 

The cost for these in-depth coding bootcamps aren’t always cheap—CoderSchool costs S$5700, similar Indonesian offerings cost S$2000, and Malaysian offerings from NextAcademy will run you about S$1000—but it’s significantly more affordable than a four-year degree, and with better long-term prospects. If you find yourself incapable of landing a job successfully, this type of upskilling could help you fill your time while also increasing your employability.

If, for whatever reason, you can’t learn programming or a tech-related skill, creative talents are also in high demand. For example, a shift to video means that more and more businesses are looking for qualified video editors. Increased focus on brand-based marketing means that online advertising is another valuable skill. You could also look into UI/UX/digital copywriting or Photoshop image editing.

Try not to take too much boomer advice

We know that the older generation has our best interests at heart, but asset ownership that was possible back then is now a pipe dream for many. Assets such as pricey cars, smartphones, and property are important, but in many cases, you don’t actually need to buy the best of what’s out there. Renting or saving with a budget option is completely valid.

Wei Choon and Ruiming of Singapore’s The Woke Salaryman shared, “It seems that for many, the mark of success is some proof of material wealth. Singapore’s prohibitively expensive car-ownership rules have resulted in this sort of strange dick measuring contest.” 

I’ve heard this advice about purchasing a car from my Indonesian grandparents, too. 

The reality is that for many of us, it’s just not necessary. Public transportation and ride-hailing are steadily improving, and a car will only bog you down as you try to save money and establish your footing in the job market. Also, we’ve all seen that online work is completely valid—so if you’re offered an online side hustle or position, why not take it and save on transportation costs?

(The above image shows cost comparisons in Singapore between those who choose car ownership, ride-hailing, or a mix).

Boomers may also try to tell you not to take “lowly” jobs like ride-hailing. But for too many fresh grads, reality is tough, and we must do what we can to survive. If you’ve grown exhausted of the application grind, you could focus on a side-hustle such as ride-hailing while learning new hard skills through a class or online video course on your off-hours before applying again.

Let’s be honest—things suck, but there’s a chance to get better

We aren’t going to pretend that the current job market doesn’t suck. 

2020 has been a tumultuous year in terms of political events, markets and economies, and natural disasters. Getting out of this situation requires relying on the networks we’ve built and offering support for one another.

Together, we can make it through to better days.


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