Bouncing back from retrenchment: How three Singaporeans got back on their feet

(From left) Ms Joscelin Kwek, Mr Adi Mesti Jadi and Mr Wilson Ho. PHOTOS: EDWIN KOO, ADI MESTI JADI, SHINTARO TAY

Figures released by the Ministry of Manpower last Wednesday show that unemployment and retrenchments surged between April and June - with more than twice the number of workers retrenched compared with the first quarter of the year.

As the pandemic continues to take its toll on the economy, more layoffs are in store.

While getting retrenched is scary and stressful, it is not the end of the world. Many have picked themselves up and some have emerged stronger.

Three Singaporeans who had their jobs taken away share how they got back on their feet.

Embarking on a new career in his 50s

"When you can't change the direction of the wind, adjust your sails."

It was this quote, by American author Harriett Jackson Brown Jr, which kept Mr Wilson Ho's spirits up and his mind open for more than a year after he was retrenched in June 2017.

The Singaporean says: "Inside my heart, I kept reminding myself that as long as I kept 'adjusting my sails' and adapting, I would be able to find another job again."

He had previously installed mooring equipment on oil rigs for more than seven years. The work often required him to be on-site overseas, which meant many days away from his wife and two children.

Mr Wilson Ho started a new career as a warehouse manager at Winspec Logistics Services in February last year after many fruitless months in his job search. ST PHOTO: SHINTARO TAY

But during an oil glut in the mid-to-late 2010s, oil prices fell and one day, Mr Ho was laid off after his company was bought over by another firm.

"I was given two months' notice," he recalls. "But even then, I felt really worried and stressed. I feared I would not be able to find another career, as I was already 54 years old then."​

He faced many obstacles getting back into the job market.

"I bought the newspaper every day and searched the ads for any job in the oil and gas industry," he recalls. "But there were very few positions as the industry was doing very poorly then."

Casting his net wider, he gave jobs in other industries a shot. He even tried for an operations manager position in a funeral company, but failed to land it.

"I guess the hirer found someone more suitable," he says.

Despite applying for new jobs almost every day, he came up empty-handed after a year.

As his savings dwindled, he came close to being unable to afford household necessities such as food and utilities at one point.

But he never lost hope. In 2018, he completed a diploma in leadership and people management from a private educational institute to upgrade himself.

In January last year, he finally hit paydirt when he answered an online job ad for a warehouse supervisor position at Winspec Logistics Services, a company in Tuas which stores and distributes goods such as food products and mechanical parts.

Not only was he hired, but he was also given the higher position of warehouse manager.

Mr Lim Kian Chin, the company's managing director, says: "When we first met Wilson during the interview, we were impressed with his positive attitude. And taking into account his transferable skill sets such as his work experience and management skills, we decided to give him a chance and offered to take him on a higher-level job as a warehouse manager."

Mr Ho recalls: "I felt very honoured to be given such an opportunity."

After joining the company in February last year, he was placed in a nine-month logistics professional conversion programme by Workforce Singapore and the Supply Chain and Logistics Academy. This course trains mid-career PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) to help them gain a foothold in the supply chain and logistics industry.

Through it, Mr Ho learnt about the ins and outs of warehousing, from logistics and transport management to inventory control and auditing.

"During the course, I remember asking a lot of questions," he says. "I wanted to make full use of this chance to start a brand new career."

Now 57, he has settled into his new job. Although he earns less than before, he appreciates the stability of his current position, which allows him more time with his family.

His advice to mid-career job seekers: "Don't overthink. Grab any opportunities that come your way. There will be hurdles to clear, but as long as you continue to learn and build new skills, you can overcome them."

Twice retrenched, now owner of six properties

Property agent Adi Mesti Jadi, in this picture taken in January, going through documents with a client. He chose to make real estate his full-time career after two rounds of retrenchment and is now executive group division director at ERA Realty Network. PHOTO: ADI MESTI JADI

Property agent Adi Mesti Jadi, 46, is one of the top performers at ERA Realty Network and the owner of six properties.

But not many know he used to work as an engineer and was retrenched not once, but twice.

In 1998, after graduating from Loughborough University in Britain, he worked for SP Telecommunications, now known as SPTel.

He was among those laid off by the company in 2003, the year of the Sars outbreak.

At that time, he was earning $4,900 a month, which was supplemented by a side gig as a property agent.

He soon found another full-time job, as a global core-network engineer with network service provider Equant.

But two years later, he was retrenched again when the company moved its operations overseas. He was then married with two young children.

This time, he decided to venture full time into real estate.

"I love being a property agent," he says. "We help clients find their dream homes or increase their wealth through property investments."

His first retrenchment experience woke him up to the reality that a job does not last forever. So even after he found work again, he doubled down on his property sideline, clinching deals and arranging viewings in between his shifts.

At times, he was so exhausted juggling two jobs that he slept in his car and showered in a public toilet the next day.

His parents initially did not approve of him going into real estate full time. "They sent me overseas for university studies and expected me to have a stable full-time job. Being a property agent is risky because my income depends on the number of deals I close."

But his wife, Ms Ayu Yanti - a 43-year-old former teacher who is also a full-time property agent with ERA now - had his back. They have three sons and a daughter aged 10 to 19.

To market himself, Mr Adi used the $60,000 compensation from his second retrenchment to buy television and newspaper advertisements.

"In the first year, there was very little money coming in and I had to take a $30,000 loan to continue paying for the advertisements. Thankfully, they paid off and more people got to know of me and my services."

He also took on challenging clients shunned by other agents, and made it a point to do a two-hour presentation and financial plan for every potential client.

And if he felt a client would not benefit from selling their home, he would advise them not to.

"The clients saw my sincerity and realised I was not just looking for a commission. They recommended me to their friends and relatives and I started closing many deals."

Over the years, he has risen from a marketing associate to his current position of executive group division director, leading a team of more than 100 agents.

At ERA's 2019 annual award presentation, he swept eight awards, including being named the eighth-best performer out of about 7,000 agents and winning the accolade for top husband-and-wife team.

Over the years, he has also accumulated six properties - including an HDB flat, condominium units, shops and a landed home in Kembangan where he and his family live.

He says: "At this stage, what I love about my career is that I can help groom and mentor other agents, so they can also achieve success. I think this is a very meaningful way of giving back."

So for those who have been laid off, do not despair, he adds.

"Take it as an opportunity to rethink life and career paths. Clear your mind and try to look at the situation positively."

She started a new firm and hired old teammates

Ms Joscelin Kwek (fourth from left) hired all seven of her former teammates when she started communications agency Muse & Motif. Five of them are still with her - (from far left) Mr Ng Yi Xuan, Ms Victoria Mak, Mr Charles Low, Mr Chong Yoke Ming and Mr Nicholas Chew. PHOTOS: NG SOR LUAN, EDWIN KOO

Top on communications specialist Joscelin Kwek's wishlist was a stable corporate job with regular hours, which would give her time to take Master of Business Administration classes in the evenings.

But in January this year, it was announced that the company she worked for - an offshoot of a boutique public relations firm - would be dissolved, and all her best-laid plans went awry.

The 38-year-old was informed that she - and seven other members of her team, who are in their 20s - would be out of a job in less than two months.

Enter a change of plans.

Ms Joscelin Kwek calls herself an "accidental entrepreneur". PHOTO: EDWIN KOO

Ms Kwek started her own communications agency, Muse & Motif, in February, and hired her entire previous team.

Calling herself an "accidental entrepreneur", she says: "The dissolution of the company was a setback, but also an opportunity. I found the conviction to try something I never had the courage to attempt before, which is to start a business.

"In the past, I lived in a comfortable familiarity, so I did not consider other possibilities apart from an in-house corporate communications position."

Ms Kwek also felt responsible for her team members.

"As their leader, I felt I had to do something. They are young and for some, it was just their first or second job. I wanted them to know that they were let go not because they were incapable or not valued," she says.

"I also wanted to ensure there was continuity in the work for our clients."

Apart from having zero experience in managing a business, Ms Kwek, who is married with two young sons, admits she is also highly risk-averse. "I am someone who needs a clear constructive plan before I can move forward on something."

What she has, though, is more than a decade of business and personal contacts - from former bosses and entrepreneur friends to church leaders and a personal adviser. After consulting them, she decided to take the plunge.

Mr William Chin, the founder and chief executive of online marketplace Mummys Market, which organises mother-and-baby care product exhibitions, also came onboard as a shareholder and co-director, which made it financially possible for Ms Kwek to hire all seven of her ex-colleagues. Five are still with Muse & Motif today.

One of them, Mr Nicholas Chew, 26, says: "I was touched by her decision to set up a new company and keep us employed. I was also relieved I still had a job."

He recalls her leading the team around the Central Business District to view office spaces. "The team became closer from the experience."

Ms Kwek started preparations for Muse & Motif when they were serving notice at their old company. By mid-February, the new business was ready for operation.

Muse & Motif found a home at OCBC Centre and its clients include Arts House Limited, the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre and food company Nissin.

The business is currently profitable with a seven-digit revenue.

Ms Kwek says: "I wouldn't say my company has tasted success yet. But business has been improving and I think this is because my team has worked really hard to carry us through this difficult time, with the pandemic and all. I also got to know them better as subordinates and friends."

She has yet to embark on her MBA as her busy schedule does not allow her to commit to long-term studies, but has been able to take some short courses in contract law and sustainable business strategy.

"I am grateful for the guidance and wisdom imparted to me during this journey - be it from my family, William, the team or clients."

What to do if you are retrenched

You can seek help from statutory board Workforce Singapore (WSG), which promotes the development, competitiveness, inclusiveness and employability of all levels of the workforce.

Job seekers who need career advice can go to one of WSG's three Careers Connect centres, at Our Tampines Hub, Woodlands Civic Centre and the Lifelong Learning Institute at Paya Lebar. They can get help on resume writing and interview preparation from professionally certified career coaches.

The centres also run workshops that provide job seekers with insights into specific industries for better interaction with potential employers.

WSG has been deploying mobile set-ups, called Careers Connect On-the-Go, to the heartland to reach out to residents who need employment assistance.

By Aug 15, there will also be one SGUnited Jobs and Skills Centre located at a community club or other convenient location in each of the 24 Housing Board towns.

These satellite career centres will provide information on jobs and training, and job seekers can meet a WSG career ambassador who can provide career advice. For the locations of the centres, click here.

You can also tap the job search portal, launched in April 2018. Some of the jobs listed include software developers, business analysts, nurses and restaurant managers.

Last Wednesday, it was announced that local mid-career job seekers will be able to apply for more than 13,000 company attachments via the portal. Among the roles available are business development managers, software engineers, finance analysts and e-commerce associates.

To request employment assistance, job seekers can also call 6883-5885 or fill in an online form here.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2020, with the headline Bouncing back from retrenchment: How 3 S'poreans got back on their feet. Subscribe