Everyone should get a portfolio career

During the debate on the President's Address recently, Member of Parliament Patrick Tay expounded on the concept of "second-skilling". He called on the Singapore Government and employers to put in place the infrastructure and support necessary to enable workers to obtain a second set of skills in the event they lose their jobs and have to find an alternative. I applaud this as a step in the right direction. It also happens to align with my concept of a portfolio career.

But, why stop at two skills, why not three, or more?

I have written before on the concept of a portfolio career, and my view remains that this is something that we have to seriously consider. Simply defined, a portfolio career consists of two or more activities that someone can do in order to continue to earning an income when self-employed.

With continuous, and increasingly rapid changes in the world, people need to proactively take charge of their careers. When it comes to business survival, employers will not have the time or inclination to take care of the rice bowls of their employees. This is a fact that some may still not fully comprehend or accept.

I coach corporate executives every working day. I know that people get fired for business reasons, and sometimes, for the silliest reasons you can imagine.

So long as people draw a monthly pay check, their jobs will be at risk. The higher the number on your pay check, the more vulnerable you will be when your employer embarks on a cost management exercise. This is reality. Holding a senior level position, and a high salary is indeed a double-edged sword.

Employees in the corporate world also have a shelf life. From my experience, the shelf life expiry date typically hovers around the ages of 45 to 55, though I have witnessed countless examples of shelf lives being brought forward, involuntarily. Take as an example a job seeker who hails from the semi-conductor industry. Many such businesses have moved out of Singapore, and unless he or she is willing, and able to relocate outside the country, it is going to be a long time before the person concerned finds a job, if at all.

A portfolio career is akin to having an insurance policy. You insure yourself against the risk of your shelf life expiring when you are not quite ready - mentally, practically and financially.

I can understand why the Government would want to look into this suggestion, but why would employers want to support their employees in the latter's quest to acquire a second set of skills? Other than doing a "good" deed, and perhaps, even seeing it as a moral obligation, what is in it for them?

Perhaps, as MP Patrick Tay mentioned, when there is a restructuring exercise, or business-related changes come about and some jobs are made redundant, forward-planning employers can re-deploy the affected employees to other roles. Thus, painful retrenchment exercises may be avoided. There may even be cost savings from not having to pay severance packages.

However, given the uncertainties in the global business environment, I think many employers would be looking very closely their spending, and an initiative like this may not be appreciated. Granting employees paid time-off to acquire another skill is also an opportunity cost to employers. At best then, it may be relegated to the back burner.

Realistically, therefore, I would say that workers need to take responsibility for acquiring a second or third skill themselves. I say this based on experience with related challenges such as hiring discrimination practices. We still read about employers practicing age discrimination - and this is despite the Government's many initiatives and continued nudging. So, rather than wait for employers to be ready to support the efforts of employees to acquire a second, or third set of skills, they should take charge of their own careers. Today.

Acquiring a multiple skills set, and owning a portfolio career is, to me, a "must-do", and not a "nice-to-do". It insures against financial challenges when one's corporate shelf life has expired. It also allows us to continue to do meaningful work (paid or otherwise) and be involved with activities, for as long as we want. Most importantly, it allows us to keep our sanity, and maintain our pride and dignity. The worst that could ever happen to anyone is to become useless to others - not because they don't want to be useful, but because they can't.

The writer is the founder and managing director of the NeXT Career Consulting Group.