Project Y to Z: Be Resilient—An Interview with Gen Y-er Chng Li Ming

This is the fourth of a seven-part ‘Project Y to Z’ series.

Project Y to Z is a ground-up initiative spearheaded by three university students—Jessica Lee and Ray Leow from the Singapore Management University (SMU), together with Lim Xuan Zheng from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They may be a small team of three, but their ambitions for this initiative are far from small. Their hope is for Project Y to Z to be a community catalyst that brings Gen Yers and Zers closer together by sharing experiences, encouraging interactions and sparking conversations. In this project, they lay bare the realities of past job search experiences told by Gen Y 2008 graduates in Singapore who survived the Global Financial Crisis and lived to tell the tale.

 


 

By Lim Xuan Zheng

 

“Persistence and resilience only come from having been given the chance to work through difficult problems.” – Gever Tulley.

 

In the third instalment of our Project Y to Z sharing, we have the honour of having Chng Li Ming to share more about her job search experience. She is a Singapore Management University (SMU) Lee Kong Chian School of Business alumna and currently a Manager at Assisi Hospice. Fun fact: she used to be the President of SMU’s People for Animal Welfare (PAW) as well! Read on to learn about her personal experiences during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008.

Here are three key takeaways from reading this article:

  1. Seek opportunities in areas that you can potentially excel in
  2. Think of ways to value-add to your prospective employers
  3. Be resilient in times of difficulty

 

When did you first hear of the recession back then?

I would say just before I got dropped off from a digital agency job that I was applying for, I was like, “Oh dear, something’s happening in the economy.”

Like many others, I started my job without knowing that the economy was going to dip, but once it did, I felt it immediately.

I was in the middle of two rounds of interviews with the digital marketing agency for an Account Executive position.

I had successfully passed the first round and the hiring manager said that the second round was just for formality’s sake—the regional head wanted to meet me, so I thought it was pretty much a done deal. However, once the economy dipped, I was notified that headcount was frozen and recruitment halted. As a result, I didn’t get the position. That was my first almost certain “net” for a job and it went down the drain just like that. Of course, if you’re not working, you don’t actually feel it because it’s just something you read about in the news.

 

During the days of job searching, how did you spend your days?

Besides partying *laugh*, I was just sending out loads of resumes and hoping for an interview. I was a very chill SMU student, I was definitely not like the typical mugging student—I graduated with mediocre grades and did two internships during my undergrad days. Ever since I was 15, I have had holiday jobs—some administrative roles in a finance company, as well as cold-calling marketing roles in a bank. All those were just for the money, but I guess those do add to some level of experience in (employers) considering you (as an applicant).

 

From the moment when you realised that your potential hiring manager wasn’t going to continue the process, what actually went through your mind?

Well, there was disappointment because I was just so bent on getting a marketing job I wasn’t very picky on the industry that I was going to go into. Back then, digital marketing was up and coming and it wasn’t even as hot now. I was disappointed, but I had to move on, and not be choosy. Subsequently, when the economy was adversely affected, I do think what helped me was my previous part-time work experiences and my internships.

If I go chronologically, according to what happened, my next job offer was with the very same finance company I had previously worked for as a student. I think that also helped me land the role—they had my records. It was more like a management trainee sort of position, but I communicated that eventually I wanted to be in the marketing department.

Well, I thought they recognised and acknowledged that, but it didn’t really come true—they wanted me to do more finance sales sort of roles. About three months into the job, the trainees went on to take up other banking positions. I was actually re-routed into a department where I had to take up a lot of complaints and lodge the cases of complaints from customers. It basically was people crying or scolding you on the phone every single day because they had purchased financial products and their money was more or less gone because of the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

As a fresh graduate, I had to go around different departments communicating with compliance, wealth management, and customers who bought the products.

It was quite an experience. I was thrown into the whole economic turmoil and it was an okay paying job for a fresh graduate, and I took it.

I felt that I wouldn’t be placed in a marketing role after being there for some time and that wasn’t what I was looking for. After three months, I decided to leave.

 

How did the people around you help you?

How I got my next job was because of my internship. I texted my manager from my internship at a theatre.

When I took on the previous finance job, she had told me that it’s not for me. So when I texted her, I told her, “you know what, you were right, this is not something cut out for me, I don’t want to do this long term.”

The non-profit organisation she was in happened to be on the lookout and the management knew me. So she said, “Look, I can’t pay you as high as the finance company – I can’t even pay you the typical fresh graduate pay, but if you’re willing to accept something a bit lower and really want to do marketing, join us.”

So right in the middle of the recession, I took on a lower pay and went to join a non-profit organisation. I did marketing which was exactly what I wanted to do—I was happy, but I was poor for two years. Although I was very certain that I liked my role doing non-profit marketing even as I knew exactly what I was giving up—a higher paying job, it did affect me a little bit knowing other people were drawing higher salaries. But I didn’t regret the decision; I gained valuable experience, I had good fun and found the job meaningful.

After two years, I came to a decision that I wanted to increase my salary (as my salary was stagnant for two years and below market level). So I left and continued to pursue marketing. So far, I have stumbled into a fundraising role that has marketing and communications aspects, which I consider it as a niche in my job scope. Before that, as a fresh graduate, the only thing I knew that I wanted to do was marketing.

I guess I didn’t value salary and pay as strongly as compared to my peers back then. I was all bent on finding something that I enjoy and I want to do. And even though it was in the middle of a recession, my previous experiences helped.

Reflecting on how people around me helped me in my first job, I would say that I reached out to my previous manager with a strong push due to the situation. I’m not the sort of person who networks for the sake of networking, although I know a lot of people who do that have found it useful and successful—my sister, being one who is also an SMU alumna herself and is very good at networking. For me, I reached out to one person in my network out of a strong push, because I really thought that a finance role wasn’t my thing.

 

Observing the ongoing recession back then, were there times in which you were worried that you might lose your new-found job?

Not really. On the downside, you don’t really have a choice as to what you want to do because they can easily hire someone to replace what you’re doing. But on the upside, If you basically do what you’re told, your job is pretty safe, being at the lowest end of the hierarchy and the cheapest on the payroll. It’s actually the pretty expensive middle management that should be more worried.

 

If you could travel back to 2008, what’s one thing that you will do differently?

One thing I might have done differently would be to not give up on the industry I had wanted that early; maybe zoom in and narrow down, or try again later.

I’m not sure if it would have delayed my job hunting process, but I do have a slight tinge of regret that I didn’t go into digital marketing. I found myself thinking, had I landed that role, had that headcount not been frozen, I might be happier doing digital marketing because I’m still interested in it. I went with the flow quite a lot, and picked whichever marketing job offer that came my way.

 

How are you pursuing your passion in digital marketing now?

Later on, in my career, I went on to do a part-time diploma in digital marketing a couple years back, as a Masters in Communications at NTU.

The charity that I work at currently, Assisi Hospice, has been largely dependent on events for fundraising and engagement of partners and supporters. In this COVID-19 situation, the challenge is that we can’t meet donors and we can’t get volunteers to come down, so they won’t be engaged and may forget about us. Despite not having a wealth of hands-on experience with digital marketing, this has helped a lot now. You can check out the Assisi Hospice Facebook Page, you will notice that there are gifs which we have created and posted. We have also sent them on WhatsApp to donors and volunteers too.

They would feel the warmth, feel the humour and not forget us.

That was something that I kickstarted, along with another online campaign. We are in the midst of building a microsite to encourage the penning of appreciation notes to nurses during these tough times and fundraising for ‘I Care for Assisi Nurses (I C.A.N)’. There is definitely a shift to move more things online.

 

What do you think hiring managers look out for in a candidate?

I’m not a hiring manager now, but I was in my previous role.

One thing I noticed is that hiring managers like to find someone who is more similar to themselves.

This is an individual preference that many people have the tendency to do… unless you are very clear and acknowledge the filtered coloured lens, and can see past that. A lot of people’s tendency and behaviour is to find someone with a similar character, work experiences and background because, to them, that is what they think would excel in the role given the similarities with themselves.

For example, for a job that I eventually landed, the interviewer kept probing me for ideas, I realised she was looking for someone who is creative and can give her more ideas; I was very willing to share and give my ideas, although at the back of my mind, I was thinking, “ will you take my ideas, run them and not hire me?” *laugh* Just a little nagging thought you know. I guess it wouldn’t hurt, so I just gave it a try. This is exactly where I’m value-adding right now, which is on the ideas generation path.

 

What is one value that you, as well as the batch of 2008 possess that help all of you during that difficult job search period?

There is a certain level of contentment.

Some people sit on one job and wait for the next better offer to come along. Of course, I’m sure that there are also others who say that, “unless I get that job I want, I will not pick up any other offer.” I think it really all depends on your financial situation—if it allows you to do that then sure, go ahead. In contrast, what I saw among my batchmates was that they tried not to be that picky. But of course, if a better offer comes along, then go for it.

I have younger cousins and I’ve seen my sister through her job hunt. Their generation, compared to my batch, I would say, are more of the “I’m waiting for that dream job, that ideal job to come along.” In my batch, I see more of a, “come on, this is good enough. Get a job first and if a better one comes along then we’ll talk about it.”

 

What do you think will be the key differences between the job search process of the batch of 2008 and the batch of 2020?

I would say that probably right now they’ll be pickier, have certain expectations, certain ideals that they want to land. One good thing is that the tech industry is still surviving, so I don’t think there is too much of an issue finding a role among tech jobs. I think very likely a lot of people have to lower their expectations.

And also, it is now very much dependent on who has a stronger internship experience, which would make you more attractive to potential employers, or if you have a good network.

 

“See the first role as a stepping stone to something potentially better.”

 

What are the important actions you feel job seekers should take now?

I would say unless your financial situation allows for it, don’t reject a pretty decent job offer that comes along, just because you’re holding on to one ideal role that you want to land yourself in because you might go into that along the way on your second or, perhaps, third role.

See the first role as a stepping stone to something potentially better.

Let me give a very simple example: my sister wanted to go into tech from the very beginning, but she didn’t. She thought tech companies love to hire consultants, so she wanted to start doing consulting work. But big consulting firms didn’t take her because she did not intern in one before. Ultimately, she took on a consulting role in a smaller firm. It was very tough—I would say the culture wasn’t quite for her, but she persevered and held on until she got a tech offer. It’s a typical situation where you know it’s not your ideal role, but it is a stepping stone to get you closer to your ideal role.

Should a more ideal job come along, I think you should still give it a try. Nobody will fault you for leaving a job within the first few months as a fresh graduate if you think that the other company’s offer is truly better.

One last thing that job seekers should look out for: don’t pick a company that may go bust in the next one year, which is quite a high probability given the current situation. They probably won’t retrench or fire you if you are in a junior position, but if the entire company goes down, then there goes your job. It happened to one of my friends who also graduated in 2008; she worked in a famous data storage company, then the company decided to shut down its entire operations in Singapore and move out. Although she lost the job, she found another one relatively quickly in a brand new industry. But, honestly speaking, at a fresh graduate level, it is relatively easier to find another job—you’re still young and adaptable. Prepare for the worst, expect the best, take what comes with a smile.

 

This article was originally published on LinkedIn and has been republished with permission.

 

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