Coming to terms with a term contract
Is contract work the new normal? amid economic uncertainties and with a risk-averse job market, job agencies tell NG JUN SEN (firstname.lastname@example.org) that businesses prefer hiring contract workers
His mother tells him that she is disappointed in him.
His wife, a retiree, is also worried about his job prospects.
That is because for the past two years, Mr Edwin Koh chose to eschew the traditional corporate ladder for his current job as an information and communications technology trainer in a school.
To his wife and mother, his career choice is unsustainable because he is a term contract employee, says the 54-year-old.
Unlike freelance work, which lasts for the duration of specific projects, term contracts refer to fixed-term employment contracts that automatically expire at the end of a specific term, unless renewed.
Mr Koh, a science degree holder, says: "In the past, we were known as temporary workers but some of the older folks may know us as job hoppers.
"Till today, my parents still hope I can find a regular, permanent job. My mother thinks of me as a constant worry because whenever my contract ends, there is no guarantee I'll get another one.
"If I do get another, it's at a different location and routine. To her and my wife, this isn't a stable job."
Mr Koh is one of around 200,000 people here - 11.3 per cent of Singapore's resident workforce - who are on term contracts.
Labour statistics from the Manpower Ministry last year show that the number had actually declined slightly from the previous year.
It was highest during the 2009 global financial crisis, which saw 12.7 per cent of the workforce in these jobs.
But job placement agencies and online career databases say lately, they have been noticing an increase in term contracts offered by employers compared to permanent hires, they tell The New Paper on Sunday.
This is not restricted to blue-collar jobs.
There are some 38,300 male and 34,200 female term contract employees in professional, manager, executive and technician (PMETs) jobs, according to 2015 numbers.
The sole breadwinner of his family of four believes long-term contract work is not necessarily a bad thing.
In any case, it still pays the bills.
To him, term contracts mean career flexibility.
Mr Koh says: "It means I can say that if I do not like the environment of my current contract, I can easily move on to something different without worrying about how it may appear to a future employer.
"I don't need to show my loyalty, I just need to provide a good service."
He did not always feel this way.
Like many, he believed the best career path after graduation in 1990 was to climb the corporate ladder in a large company.
"I thought that working at a multinational corporation means I will get my iron rice bowl.
"I thought I didn't have to worry any longer," he says, recalling his managerial role in the company.
But the company, Compaq, was eventually acquired by HP.
He soon found himself "restructured" out of a job after five years of service.
Mr Koh says: "From being a supervisor to a team, I became a nobody overnight. A different manager took over and I was no longer the boss.
"Not only did I get a pay cut, I had to put on a blue badge to show I was a contract worker, it was quite malu (embarrassing in Malay) and I didn't believe in an iron rice bowl after that."
With the money Mr Koh saved, he decided to start up business ventures - an IT education firm, a cleaning contractor and a hawker stall. All had good runs but eventually failed.
As an employer, he understood that hiring term contract workers favoured hirers.
Mr Koh says: "Yes, contract workers are cheaper to employ and easier to get rid off when times are bad.
"But I also appreciated that the workers who want to keep their job know they cannot be complacent, because they can be replaced."
So when the businesses did not work out, Mr Koh was willing to give term contracts a try as the work was meritocratic.
While he used to take pride in his career, he now takes pride in, and ownership of, his work.
"It is competitive, so if people meet the job's KPI (key performance indicators) or exceed them, it means they are capable," he says.
"There isn't a traditional career path to speak of, but I now think of career progression as trying out different roles and expanding my understanding of my work."
That does not stop his parents from nagging him about finding a permanent job, he says with a laugh.
Mr Koh says: "To them, a permanent full-time job means that one is successful and is committed to a proper life.
"Nowadays, that may not be so true any more."
'You are your own brand'
Tennis coach Andrew Mah, 60, has never worked on a full-time permanent basis.
His industry is dominated by term contract workers who work per sporting season or on six- to 12-month terms.
Mr Mah, who has 35 years of experience, says: "It is like running your own business. You need to market yourself because you are your own brand."
He coaches at CHIJ Secondary School and Ngee Ann Polytechnic on 12-month term contracts.
When contracts do not get renewed, he hits GeBiz, the Government's procurement portal, or job sites.
Mr Mah says: "I cannot take my job for granted. If I cannot perform to employer's expectations, there's always someone else to replace you.
"The competition is not just over what we bring to the table, but also over rates. I peg mine to the market rate but there could always be people who undercut."
He does not mind these "undercutters" as it gives newcomers a chance.
Employers know what they are paying for, he adds.
"Any one of us can choose to start a bidding war, but it might backfire. If I charge a premium, I will have to perform to justify my income," he says.
"You have to earn your keep, the employer gets what they want, so it is a win-win."
But he admits contract work has disadvantages - the lack of yearly bonuses and welfare entitlements.
Taking a leave of absence can be a problem as not all contract workers have leave benefits.
Mr Mah says: "If you decide to take a break for one day, you don't get paid for that day."
In June, the Ministry of Manpower and its tripartite partners released guidelines for employers to extend paid leave to contract staff, and employers are still catching on.
Mr Mah has also been unceremoniously dropped after a contract expired with little notice.
He recalls: "I was taken by surprise because I thought I had a good relationship with the employer.
"While contracts are not automatically renewed, there should be some notice so we can anticipate what may happen."
Expert: Candidates are more realistic nowadays
Thanks to a slowing economy, job portals and placement firms are seeing more term contract jobs being offered today.
Ms Chew Siew Mee, country sales manager for JobStreet.com Singapore, says: "Contract staff are the ideal solution as businesses can make absolutely certain a position is needed before committing to a full-time head count."
She also said she has noticed an increase in the willingness of job seekers to take on these jobs.
"The benefits and pay for contract jobs these days are almost on par with permanent roles," says Ms Chew.
"Candidates are now more realistic and mentally prepared about the volatility of today's economic climate... Some contract positions even come with bonuses on project completion."
This is encouraging as it promotes competitiveness, she adds.
Ms Chew says: "Companies are emphasising on profits and competitiveness.
"Employees are consistently evaluated and candidates need to remain competitive to stay relevant.
"This is a start for more opportunities... Everyone is more responsive to market forces."
A spokesman for job placement agency Seacare Manpower says most of its 2,600 successful matches in the past two years are based on term contracts.
The agency is part of Seacare Co-operative, a labour co-operative set up by NTUC and the Singapore Organisation of Seamen.
The spokesman says: "Most job seekers in our pool are people waiting for full-time employment, but are willing to do contract-based jobs in the meantime."
He noticed housewives who want to work again prefer contract jobs.
"(They) are not sure if they are competent enough. So they are willing to try out contract-based jobs," he says.
He believes it is unlikely that contract staff will eclipse permanent staff in the near future.
"To achieve long-term productivity gain, employees need to be constantly upgraded and this can only be effective if they are engaged on a full-time basis and their career path is well-defined within the company," he says.