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Singapore's public sector ought to take the lead in hiring older workers

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam recently underscored the need for employers to reorient their management philosophies, human resource and talent management practices, so that middle-aged and mature Singaporean workers would have a fair chance to prove themselves. This call for employers to change their mindsets on mature workers is timely. The public service, being the largest employer in Singapore, should take the lead in hiring these workers.

Office workers in Singapore's central business district. There is no consistent evidence that suggests older workers are less productive than younger workers, says the author.

Office workers in Singapore's central business district. There is no consistent evidence that suggests older workers are less productive than younger workers, says the author.

In tandem with an ageing population, Singapore’s workforce is also ageing rapidly. Today, six in 10 are aged 40 or older, with many aged above 50.

In a recent speech, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam underscored the need to help these workers stay employed. 

He noted that this must be a “national effort” and requires new thinking among employers to reorient their management philosophies, human resource and talent management practices, so that middle-aged and mature Singaporean workers would have a fair chance to prove themselves.

“No Singaporean who is willing to learn should be ‘too old’ to hire. And no one who is willing to adapt should be viewed as ‘overqualified’,” he said.

This call for employers to change their mindsets on the hiring and management of mature workers is timely.

I would argue further that the public service, being the largest employer in Singapore with 146,000 officers in 16 ministries and more than 50 statutory boards, should take the lead in hiring these workers.

Otherwise, the call by the Government for businesses to hire older Singaporeans would sound empty.

What are some challenges that the public sector faces in hiring mature workers and how can they be overcome?

A PARADIGM SHIFT

First, like businesses, government agencies will need a paradigm shift and get rid of misconceptions about hiring those above 40 or 50.

Extensive evidence exists to demonstrate that older workers are just as effective at work as their younger colleagues, particularly when abilities match requirements and expertise is accounted for.

There is no consistent evidence either that suggests older workers are less productive than younger workers.

Research conducted by the Singapore University of Social Sciences’ Institute for Adult Learning in Singapore shows that mature workers aged 45 or older are adaptable and willing to learn. This is contrary to commonly assumed limitations, such as the idea that they are set in their ways and reluctant to pick up new skills, take on new roles or use new technology.

Let me cite the example of Mona, a former student now working in the civil service.

She is in her late 50s and is learning different digitalisation tools.

In fact, she had to tell her colleagues in their late 30s and early 40s to pick up blockchain technology and cloud computing skills which they ironically were resistant to do so.

Another woman, Sew Lin, who is in her mid-40, shared with me that she has made “countless applications” to the civil service but never received a single response.

Then there is Ming Li, who in her mid-50s, similarly disclosed that she has applied for a position in the civil service but has yet to receive a response.

Both women held senior management positions in their previous jobs and have applied for lower positions in the public sector.

A key obstacle appears to be at the human resource (HR) screening level. If HR officers possess stereotypical views of older workers, these applicants would not even get past them.

A strategy to mitigate this is to utilise a multi-generational panel for both job application screening and interviews.

Studies have shown that this increases the likelihood of older candidates being hired.

PERSONNEL MANAGEMENT

A related issue is the perception that it would be harder to manage older workers.

Recent research conducted by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, in collaboration with the United Kingdom-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, found that organisations are reluctant to hire mature workers due to concerns about the capability of their younger managers to manage them effectively.

Two-thirds of respondents reported that younger managers often find it difficult to manage mature employees. The proportion rose to 82 per cent for those aged 40 or below who manage mature workers (compared to 58 per cent of those above aged 40).

Indeed, younger workers appear to have difficulty managing older workers, based on anecdotal accounts by mature workers.

The phenomenon of a multi-generational workforce with disparate needs, priorities, interests and motivations is here to stay. Therefore, younger officers should be provided opportunities to engage in exercises which could uncover their personal age stereotypes and address them appropriately.  

Moreover, it is imperative for the public service to develop corporate guidelines for an inter-generational human resource policy and practices. Younger officers should be equipped with the pertinent competencies to harness the abilities, strengths and potentials of mature workers.

Inter-generational collaborations and teams could be formed to work together on projects, to promote awareness, appreciation, respect and cooperation across the different generations.

ADJUSTING PROCESSES

The next challenge which the public service needs to address has to do with its processes. Over its long history, it is understandable that some of these are deeply entrenched, even institutionalised.

It would make it more challenging for workers from the private sector, including those with many years of working experience, to cross over.

One mid-career worker hailing from the private sector, Johnny, 51, told me that when he joined the civil service several years ago, he almost resigned after just one week, due to its “inflexibility and the organisational culture”.

Yet government agencies would certainly benefit from the diverse experience that mature workers from the private sector have.

This was in fact a point made by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the annual public service leadership dinner in January when he spoke about the need to have a broader diversity of experiences and mindsets among leaders of government agencies.

“Mid-career entrants to the public service bring with them expertise that we lack, especially direct experience of how the private sector operates and what it takes to win business and to make a bottom line,” he said, adding that they also bring valuable fresh perspectives.

He noted that the public service has not been very successful in mid-career recruitment and it was not for the lack of trying.

Often it fails to work out because “the gulf in culture and mission between the private and public sectors is just too deep”.

Still, he cautioned that government agencies should not make mid-career entrants conform.

“Instead, we should help them to settle in, integrate into and win the trust of the group while retaining their unique experiences and differences, and making an extra effort to take in their ideas and perspectives,” he added.

I would suggest that such an “extra effort” could take the form of regular dialogues, between new mid-career entrants and management.

Where feasible, their ideas, feedback and recommendations should be considered and implemented.

Even if they could not be adopted for a variety of reasons, such platforms would offer management the opportunities to explicitly articulate the rationales to the new mature entrants.

This is likely to engender in them a deeper appreciation on the rationale of various processes, and win their trust.

Considering Singapore's demographic realities, the substantial body of evidence about the capabilities and capacities of mature workers, as well as their need and desire to be employed, the time is ripe for Singapore’s public service to walk the talk and take proactive steps in hiring them.

Moreover, these recruitment practices should be showcased, to encourage and facilitate adoption by private sector employers. This aligns well with the broader aim of building a fair and inclusive society.

How private sector employers might respond to the Government’s clarion call to employ older workers would likely be influenced by the actions of the public service.   

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Helen Ko is a senior lecturer in gerontology at the Singapore University of Social Sciences and executive director of Beyond Age, a silver workforce training consultancy. She was previously executive director of the Centre for Seniors and chief executive officer of St Luke’s Eldercare.

Related topics

career Public Service Division civil service ageism Jobs

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