Here's how you switch industries mid-career in Singapore

By Paul Ratcliffe

As a Recruiter, a question I am often asked is "How do I switch industries?" Industries rise and industries fall over time and for talented people planning and managing a career, being in an industry with a bright future, sound employment security, working with smart and talented people, and being involved in something that matters are important considerations for career advancement.

I have seen multiple people who have developed their career by changing industries and can offer advice based on actual success stories that I have seen. The first point to make is that for most people changing industries mid-way through a career is not an easy thing to do.

Yes, everybody has transferable skills. And, yes, many of the desirable industries that have a strong future in Singapore - those that have been backed by the government to become regional and global hubs - are facing a skill shortage that has only been exasperated by recent changes in criteria for employment passes as companies can no longer rely on simply importing experienced workers from abroad.

At the macro-level senior people talk about the challenges facing their industry. Leaders in business and in government ask, "What can we do to attract more talent to the industry?"

However at the micro-level, individual hiring managers want to make a safe hire who can hit the ground running with minimal training. A cookie-cutter candidate who ticks all the boxes on their mental checklist – and more often than not this is someone who has done the same job with another company in the same sector of the same industry.

HR people aim to give hiring managers what they ask for and make sure they "filter" applicants effectively. This is the classic Catch 22 challenge that job seekers face. In the current market when you apply for a job unless you are a 95-100% fit on paper, the chances are you won't even get an interview. So what can you do to overcome this?

1)      Firstly you have to be able to sell yourself. Think about yourself holistically. Evaluate your technical skills and soft skills. All skills are transferable to some extent – what do you know, what can you do, what value can this create for an employer? Apart from the basics of your job – what else do you contribute?

Do a personal achievements audit – what makes you stand out as better than your peers. If an employer believes that you have real talent, ability, and skills that can be transferred, then they may be prepared to take a chance on you – even if you haven't worked in their industry before.

2)      Be open minded and willing to learn. Reading and researching widely will help you to identify opportunities to make use of your skills, and progressive employers want to hire people who can think outside of the box.

3)      Have energy and enthusiasm. Unfortunately there are too many people who seem to have lost all enthusiasm for their career and personal development. Many progressive employers are all for hiring older people who have great experience that they can contribute.

When it comes to age, what holds a lot of people back is not the number but their state of mind. If you think and act like you are one step from retirement, then that is a sure-fire way of sabotaging your career options. 

4)      Be prepared to grasp opportunity. Many transformational career moves come about through a "lucky break". A career opportunity can come from an unexpected source - someone you meet at a dinner party or in a bar; a head hunter who calls you out of the blue; a previous colleague; a distant family member or friend of a friend. Your personal network and extended network is your greatest career resource.

5)      Be visible. Chance meetings and opportunities can come along if you put yourself out there. Attend networking events beyond your immediate industry; make sure you have a good profile on LinkedIn; put yourself on relevant head hunter radars; get involved in groups and associations.

6)      If you are proactively looking to move to a specific industry, then you must have a compelling "why". If you show real interest and a solid understanding of an industry, then an employer is more likely to see you as a safer long-term bet.

It also helps if you can have some degree of financial flexibility.  If you are changing industry, then you may not be able to command an immediate pay hike and in many cases people even take a small step back so as to make themselves competitive. If it is the right move for you, then it will pay off financially in the long term.

People in Singapore who want to change industry are often attracted to Banking, Private Equity, Oil & Gas, and Commodities for the high profile, the perceived glamour and high salaries.

One industry that doesn't always receive the same recognition from outsiders is the shipping industry. Whilst it is a commonly quoted fact that shipping contributes 7% of Singapore's GDP, I don't think it is as widely understood outside of the industry quite how important Singapore is to the shipping world.

Singapore is to shipping what the EPL is to football. All of the top global players are represented and many have regional and even global HQs here. Undoubtedly Singapore is the number 1 shipping center in Asia and many would even say the world.

It is true that some jobs in shipping require high levels of technical competence that can only be achieved by following a long career at sea, which is not the most attractive proposition to the average Singaporean! But there is a lot more to shipping than the technical management of ships.

In fact there are thousands of opportunities for employment in a hugely diverse range of jobs – there are Shipping Lawyers, Shipping Bankers, Accountants, HR, Corporate Communications, Marine Insurance, Sales, Marketing, Bunker Traders, Journalists, IT, and Office Managers all dedicated to the industry.

Then there are the core commercial roles of Ship Broking, Chartering, Freight Trading, and Commercial Operations. In most fields shipping pays well above the average in Singapore and for some the financial rewards can be extraordinary – it is quite normal for a good Freight Trader trading physical and paper to make SGD 30,000 to 50,000 a month in a hot market.

The industry has been well backed by government policy and has effective government agencies promoting Singapore as a hub for the industry. There has been extensive capital investment in long-term physical assets such as the $3.5 billion Pasir Pajang Container Terminal and the $1.7 billion LNG Terminal. So it is safe to say that the long-term prospects for the industry in Singapore are good. 

Recently it has been publicly recognised by industry leaders that shipping is facing a skills crunch in Singapore. One solution would be for employers to consider hiring exceptional people from other industries for certain roles where skills can be transferred.

Obviously many companies and HR Managers are not in a position to invest their precious time and resources in personally speaking to, meeting, and evaluating every Tom, Dick, and Harry who sends in a CV or applies to a job. But clients do ask for candidates to be selected from the very best from outside the industry.

Of course this is not easy and is not just about filtering out those who are obviously unsuitable – it requires genuine understanding of the clients' business and the industry skills landscape to identify left field candidates who can add real value.

There is a benefit in hiring people who bring new ideas and perspective and can introduce best practices from other industries – but those who can do this and can adapt to the realities of the shipping industry and individual business are few and far between.

Anyone who is interested in developing their career in Singapore's Shipping industry should make the first step of making sure you are on the shipping industry's radar. Make contact with industry leaders (including recruiters!) and keep yourself in view.

The key point here is that if you want to change industry you have to be in the right place and visible to the right people at the right time; and when opportunity presents itself you have to grab it with both hands.

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