4 Brutal Truths About Why It’s So Hard to Get Promoted in Singapore

Ryan Ong

Ryan Ong

Last updated 01 June, 2017

Lately, it seems like career ladders are getting harder to climb. These harsh realities explain why it's not easy to get promoted in Singapore.

These days, career ladders in Singapore sure seem to have widely-spaced out rungs. And climbing it can feel like you’ve got lead weights strapped to both feet. There’s a growing and legitimate fear that 10 years from now, we’ll be doing the same old thing for the same old pay.

Here are some unpleasant realities about why it’s hard to get promoted in Singapore.

Sometimes, It’s BECAUSE You’re Good at Your Job

There’s an old saying that, if you don’t want your job, then stop being so good at doing it. For those of you new to the workforce, we’re going to let you in on a brutal, and infuriating truth:

It’s possible to have a boss so dependent on you, they refuse to promote you because they’d lose you.

It’s an open secret in workplaces that being indispensable is a double-edged sword. Consider, for example, a warehouse supervisor who is the centre of the workplace. This particular supervisor gets along with everyone on the team, instantly knows where everything is, and is willing to come in on weekends to complete the job.

In fact, every other warehouse supervisor has quit from stress after two or three months; only this specific one has managed to stay on for three years, delivering the same level of service day-in and day-out.

Now if the supervisor’s boss were to have him promoted, he’d move to the regional office and no longer deal with the warehouse floor. That would mean the boss has to find a new worker, who is just as efficient as the current person - and history suggests that’s not likely to happen.

The natural consequence of this is that the supervisor’s boss will treasure him. There’s little chance the supervisor will ever be fired, but there’s just as little chance of him ever being promoted.

Remember, managers want to retain the people who can fix their problems. Sometimes, your reward for being good at your job is to be stuck with it forever.

Jobs are Increasingly Specialised

Back about 40 or 50 years ago, you could start out working in the office mail room, and in 20 years you’d be heading a department of your own. These days, that kind of mobility doesn’t exist anymore, because of how specialised skills have become.

In the 1990s, the “IT guy” handled everything from fixing failed servers to coding a website. These days, the web developers have different qualifications from the content marketers, who have different qualifications from the coders working on mobile apps.

This hasn’t happened with all jobs, but it has happened with many. It’s not enough for a worker to just tail someone long enough, and then get a general idea of what they do - an accountant can’t just “follow the procurement officer around” and end up understanding how to do a purchasing job*.

As economies develop, and products and services grow more sophisticated, companies require more and more specialised skills. And some of these skills (e.g. procurement, logistics, compliance) can take years of dedicated study.

It’s hard to be promoted into those jobs unless you can somehow take a year or three to study. And once you do get into those jobs, it’s hard to be promoted out of them (see point 1).

*If you think this is possible, you underestimate how absurdly complex procurement has become.

You’re Expected to be Fully Competent From Day One

We’ll give you an example from a media company, although the same thing happens in a lot of other industries:

A long time ago, when you wanted to work in CGI or journalism or digital illustration, you’d be guided. You might not start off doing great work, but you’d be placed under a creative director. That director would improve you, and mold you into a competent professional. Over time, you’d rise to be a director yourself.

Today, you’re expected to be able to do the job well from day one. Very few bosses are interested in helping you reach your full potential. They’re paying you to fix a problem, and if you can’t, you’re out. This mentality impacts how they promote.

When they need a new app developer, they’re not interested in looking at a pool of current employees, and seeing who can be “groomed” for the position.

They just look at popular apps, ask who made them, and try to hire those people (who will come in as your boss).

There’s an Abundance of Qualified Employees

Thanks to education bloat, a degree is fast becoming a norm, and a diploma these days is practically a basic requirement. The only exception to this is a sales jobs, which is more a form of self-employment.

The abundance of degree holders means a company has less interest in putting you through school, and waiting for the results. They’d much rather have headhunters find qualified people who are already out there, and hire them directly into the position.

In the same way you don’t want to have your grow your own vegetables for lunch, they want to just rip what they need off a shelf and pay for it pronto. It’s a rushed mentality, bred in an environment where businesses change faster than ever.

None of This Means You Can’t Be Promoted

But it does mean you can’t be promoted the old way - by keeping your head down, being quiet, and working hard. This isn’t 1972, and that mentality isn’t going to reward you.

Rather, you need to mix personal initiative with a little bit of aggression. You need to know when you’re being locked down because there’s no replacement, and use that as leverage. How would they like it if you left altogether instead?

You also need to take personal initiative to upgrade yourself, by getting the needed skilled qualifications. If your company won’t give you time to do it, that’s tough; you’ll have to make the time anyway. Because they won’t be doing you that favour, however long you stay.

Above all, you need to discard the notion that you can come in wide-eyed and eager to learn, and expect to get somewhere. You won’t. Aim to stun people with the quality of your work from day one; because if you can’t, you’re not good enough. Go and improve, but don’t expect your employer to dedicate the time or resources to help you.

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Ryan has been writing about finance for the last 10 years. He also has his fingers in a lot of other pies, having written for publications such as Men’s Health, Her World, Esquire, and Yahoo! Finance.


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