What to do about jobs disruption

As 2015 draws to a close, it is clear in my mind that we will wake up on Jan 1, 2016, to a world that is unclear of where it is heading.

Singapore's gross domestic product growth next year could be as low as 1 per cent, given the Government's forecast of 1 to 3 per cent, and most of the rest of the world is not doing so great either. The worrying part is there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel yet.

Those who are relying on full-time work in the corporate world as the sole means of livelihood have not had it so challenging before. Entire industries are evolving, some are disappearing. About a decade or so ago, the insurance industry underwent a shift and, among other major changes, began to work closely with banks to market their investment products and the term "bancassurance" was born. The jobs disruption that resulted was significant.

With the continuous advent of technology, we are now at the verge of yet another major shift - "fintech". Consumer decision-making will increasingly be made by tech-savvy Gen Ys and it will be a matter of time before purchases of financial-service products, including insurance, are made online.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore has announced that it will commit $225 million over five years, under the Financial Sector Technology and Innovation scheme, to fintech, a move that reflects the seriousness with which it is approaching this game-changing concept.

The tide in favour of technology-based outplacement programmes is such that a US-based virtual outplacement business was acquired for $140 million, barely a decade after it came into being.

Among other implications, an entire generation of insurance agents might then no longer have a meaningful job to do. That also applies to agents providing over-the-counter service and sales personnel who support walk-in clients in banks.

The smart thing for Singaporeans in these two professions to do is to begin contemplating what steps they need to take to keep themselves employable. It will be a matter of time before they have to look for an alternative main source of income. Blame that on "disruptive change".

Another threat close to my heart is the one that hangs over the recruitment and outplacement industries, where I have spent much of my career.

Employers are increasingly searching for talent via technology-driven platforms like LinkedIn. This poses a threat to recruiters who exist mostly to source for talent, shortlist suitable ones for their clients and present them on a platter for them to interview, further shortlist and decide whether or not to hire.

Increasingly, technology has taken over some of the shortlisting work done by recruiters. The use of online psycho-profiling tools is just one such example. Another is the use of investigative social media checks. In the US, there are already virtual outplacement programmes that are available in the marketplace. For a couple of hundred dollars, companies that are outplacing employees can buy a virtual outplacement programme whereby participants will receive a hyperlink and a password that will allow them to go online to avail themselves of job search-related resources. These include services to help them write a professional resume.

The tide in favour of technology-based outplacement programmes is such that a US-based virtual outplacement business was acquired for US$100 million (S$140 million) barely a decade after it came into being.

Fortunately, my recruitment and outplacement colleagues may not yet be on the verge of losing their jobs. The human touch involved in counselling and providing emotional support to those who have involuntarily lost their jobs is still a key element of outplacement. However, having said this, the writing is indeed on the wall for such jobs.

And the disruptive changes will continue with both jobs and industries threatened. That is why industry champion groups, such as the ones representing insurance agents and bank employees, must be proactive in engaging their members and work with government agencies, such as the Workforce Development Agency(WDA), to get the message out and provide help.

For employees, the focus must be on staying relevant and employable. Thus, it is imperative for them to develop an arsenal of skill sets as that mitigates the risk of them becoming obsolete. They also need to intensify their efforts to broaden and deepen their knowledge base. And they must - this is no longer an option - stay in touch with and embrace technology.

Welcome to the new working world.

•The writer is founder and managing director of NeXT Career Consulting Group, Asia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline 'What to do about jobs disruption'. Print Edition | Subscribe