Job hopping can cut both ways

THAT job hopping is on the rise attests to the cyclical opportunities created by a tight labour market driven by the relentless search for talent. A buoyant market is good news, as is the fact that job hoppers are talented, which is why new employers hire them in the first place. Job hoppers in their early 20s typically represent a generation of Singaporeans confident of their market value, willing to take risks, and eager to make the most of opportunities while they last. However, many are tempted by the prospects of immediate pay increases and promotions, although reality often falls short of expectations. All of them have bought deeply into the idea that remaining employable requires willingness to change not just jobs but possibly also careers over a working lifetime. In a sense, job hoppers inhabit the brash borders of a new economy where customary attachment to the employer has vanished along with the prospects of lifelong employment in a single company.

In that context, changing jobs is a way for younger workers to enhance their employability by broadening their job skills in a variety of firms occupying different sectors of the economy. Indeed, their adventurous attitude would be rewarded at the workplace, where technology is one of the forces breaking down traditional barriers and distinctions between various kinds of work and the skills and dispositions needed to carry them out. The new economy resembles horizontal territory, compared to the vertical silos in which workers once lived. To job hop is to do no more than to explore the new terrain, youth and daring in hand.

However, it would be unwise to stretch the analogy of exploration too far. If a frequent change of jobs allows workers to broaden their skills base, it also inhibits their ability to deepen those skills. As they grow older, depth progressively will matter more than breadth. Specialisation, born of sustained knowledge of the economic sector to which a company belongs and of its particular place in that scheme of things, is necessary for managers and other senior workers to make a lasting difference to corporate performance.

The flexibility gained from mobility in earlier years needs to be complemented with staying power, the incremental accumulation of skills, and commitment to a company's prospects which extends beyond short-term attempts to maximise one's own interests. The instincts honed by years of roaming need to be tempered by the realism of taking personal responsibility for the fortunes of a company. The ability to make the transition from a wandering worker to a dependable employee is critical to companies as they seek to climb the productivity ladder. On-job training will help to retain such workers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2015, with the headline 'Job hopping can cut both ways'. Print Edition | Subscribe