When I first embarked on my career as a writer, I always thought it would be a safe and viable career.
After all, content was never going to write itself, and the more one writes, the better one gets.
My misguided fallacy was further fueled by the knowledge that many authors I read – besides J.R.R. Tolkien – are still writing today.
So, imagine my surprise when I learnt that someone like 56-year-old Arulnathan John, a veteran writer with Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) for 20 years, was at the receiving end of a retrenchment letter.
The evening that we were supposed to chat, I was a little more anxious than my usual self as I sat in the Zoom meeting room waiting for him to dial in.
This was someone who had two decades of professional writing experience, while I only had two years as a writer with LabourBeat.
Thankfully, he put my worries to rest with his warm demeanor. He had just got off another virtual meeting and he still managed to pull off a smile although he was noticeably fatigued.
Getting laid off came as of little surprise to Arul. As we talked, he revealed that layoffs had become an annual occurrence at SPH since 2003.
“Every time there was a layoff, or I got news about it, I would be praying hard that it wouldn’t be me. [This happened for] at least like eight to nine times,” he shared.
And I guess for Arul, it eventually reached a stage whereby he realised that his prayers were just delaying the inevitable.
“If it wasn’t going to happen now it will happen eventually. But this time I had the sense that whatever happens, I’ll be okay. I don’t want it to happen, but if it happens, I’ll be okay … I was happy for the years I had. I wasn’t bitter or anything like that, it wouldn’t have helped anyway,” he said.
In September 2020, he ended his stint with SPH, as did some 140 employees.
He shared the news with his family members, who were supportive and gave him encouragement.
Finding the Next Job
Besides receiving what he described as “a very fair package”, he shared that he was fortunate to also be a member of the Creative Media and Publishing Union (CMPU). The union gave him access to NTUC’s e2i (Employment and Employability Institute) and training courses.
It was through this association that he also got in touch with NTUC U PME Centre and career coach Herjeet Singh, who helped him re-work his resume.
“He talked to me about a lot of things. About how to fashion my resume so that it fits the ATS [Applicant Tracking System] and all that.
“Because I hadn’t written a resume for years! Mine was the old, traditional resume with the cover letter, and then you attach all your documents to them. The old-fashioned style!” he said, with a laugh.
Beyond his resume, Herjeet also helped him update his LinkedIn profile to make his experiences stand out.
“I had a LinkedIn account before that, but I never really actively modified it or worked on it. That was until Herjeet came in and taught me what to do,” he shared.
Not wanting to stop there, he also put a word out on his social media platforms, informing his friends of his predicament.
In less than two months after he left SPH, through a referral from a friend, he secured a six-month contract position with MediaCorp, where he worked until May this year.
As far as finding new employment after his retrenchment was concerned, two months was considered quick.
I related to him that I had previously encountered profiles who took more than three years to find their next stint after leaving their last company.
For Arul to be able to bounce that quickly back into the corporate world, it must have been due to his extensive years of experience, I thought.
But he felt otherwise.
“People were always telling me ‘You know, with your years of experience you’ll have no problem getting a job.’ But I slowly started to realise it wasn’t as simple as that,” he said.
“The years of experience, it doesn’t really cut it after a while. You are a writer, you wrote great articles, you won awards … In a different job market today, where there is a lot of digitalisation, I suddenly realised that those skills weren’t enough. It was enough in a different time. Today, you have people asking how familiar you are writing on a digital platform, how familiar are you with SEO. It is a different yardstick.”
What PMEs Ought to Do
Having gone through it himself, he shared three points on what mature PMEs facing retrenchment can do to help themselves during the transition phase.
For one, he felt that they had to overcome their fear of reskilling and pick up new skills that can help keep them relevant.
He said: “It’s not always going to be the case whereby every skill you learn is going to be absolute lock in your resume, because the job market is too dynamic and too volatile for that. But if anything, the benefit is that it keeps you mentally sharp and agile.”
He also shared that he felt that workers ought to find an interim role till that next full-time opportunity surfaces.
He said: “You may have to take some jobs that pay less, or are a little bit difficult like, for example, a Social Distancing Ambassador… It is honest work, and it keeps you active and alive, and it’s like an interim where at least you’re still getting paid, you’re getting some money until you get that final job.”
And lastly, he felt that having the support of a union was beneficial, especially when facing something as daunting as being made redundant.
“I always felt, it’s always good to have union help, because it is good to have somebody who looks after your back, right? And the Labour Movement will have your back,” he asserted.
Since completing his contract job earlier in May this year, Arul has been busying himself with his own freelance writing work.
For him, he hopes that both Government and employers can find better ways to tap on the experiences and skills of more mature workers.
“I am completely in favour of employing older workers, and I still feel that older workers are a resource that is not tapped. There are economic considerations I agree, but there’s got to be a better way. People will say younger workers are cheaper, that you don’t have to pay them so much; for the price of one older worker, you could hire two younger workers; they are healthier – older workers come with health problems.
“But what about the experience of older workers, the mentoring of the younger workers, teaching them the ropes? Work is not just skill; it is emotional intelligence, your IQ and EQ. Those are important things [too],” he said.