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Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Lessons I learnt from layoffs

Gabriel Chen tells the human story behind all the recent job cuts.

FORMER United States president Harry Truman once said: “It’s a recession when your neighbour loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours.”

Well, I haven’t lost my job yet, but when I look at how my friends who’ve lost theirs are dealing with their emptiness, I would like to tell them not to give up.

First, it’s easy to get depressed. Their income, their self-worth, their sense of disposition all shattered.

Of course, there are ways to mitigate the uncontrollable, like making sure there is going to be enough money if income is lost or learning to plan so that your family can cope during these trying times.

But think rationally. There’ll be sadness and maybe a huge myraid of emotions tossed into the depressing unemployment picture, but the prospect of change can be eye-opening too.

I’ve changed during the financial crisis.

I used to think writing about job cuts was like flashing out a series of numbers, no responsibility on my part.

But I was very wrong.

In fact, job cuts concern real lives, emotions, people – things you can’t fudge and trivialise.

I learned it the hard way. I remembered a story I wrote sometime ago about how one bank was trimming jobs here.

I said this lady – and I mentioned her full name – was axed from this certain bank. She wrote in to complain, saying that she wasn’t asked to go, but rather, she “had in fact resigned to embark on a change for personal reasons”.

So there, I was careless, flippant and bit too cocky, and I should have been more careful.

I made a bad mistake, learned about layoffs in a hard way, and for me, that was a lesson in itself. I had to change or face the prospect of my writer’s reputation going down the drain.

One of my friends, an ex-banker, pulled in a seven-figure sum last year, dealing with complicated investment products.

Today, he is earning zilch. He spends his time doing “nothing” and doesn’t see the point in finding a job at the moment.

Mark, not his real name, explains: “There’re 200 applicants for one opening, and it’s very competitive, especially when what you were doing in the past was very specific. The industry will change with time, so I’ll wait as well.”

Mark is quite right, you know, because the financial industry will evolve.

I talked to several bankers selling those toxic structured products that made its way to the retail market.

Banker John Tan, not his real name, 30, told me that he sold Lehman Minibonds last year.

That helped him earn about $7,000 a month, including commissions. Today, he is stuck with just his basic monthly pay of $3,000 and has been switched to do work like data trending and documentation.

“It’s different from what I did but I’ve no choice,” he tells me with a sigh. “I can quit, but where can I go? Every industry is down.”

Personal banker Alvin Lee, 27, is also trying to adjust his lifestyle during these “worrisome times”. He too is making an effort to change his lifstyle, whether he fancies it or not.

He was hitting about $1 million to $3 million worth of sales of structured products every quarter a year ago. This means that every quarter, he reaped about $15,000 to $30,000 in commissions alone.

He splashed a big portion of that on clothes and steaks at Lawry’s Restaurant.

“Today, anything goes,” he said. He works at a foreign bank, selling investment products, but his overall remuneration package has fallen by about 25 per cent.

“I’m trying to save,” he says wistfully.

Then there is Sharon, 28, a relationship manager who has since switched to selling general insurance and currencies to customers of her bank.

This is a far cry from the boom times during the middle of last year where equity-linked notes, a kind of structured product, comprised 80 per cent of her monthly sales.

I spoke to Mark yesterday. “My family is more worried than I am about myself. They belong to the old school and are not used to me doing nothing,” he concedes.

Mark now sees his family about 15 hours a day, compared with eight hours a day during those long arduous days he put in at his workplace last year. That, in itself, is an adjustment for him.

So what now, you say. Indeed, now is the time, that time of change. You might still have a job, but be prepared for a lot of changes down the road. This is a time where you have to step away from your comfort zone.

Downsizing and pink slips may be household names now, and sure, it may not be easy to deal with job losses, but don’t despair as there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.

The future is a construct that is shaped in the present, and that is why to be responsible in the present is the only way of taking serious responsibility for the future.

Keep saving, be prudent, and don’t fear the unknown.

The world will continue, and whether we know it or not, we are deciding its course every day.

Sometimes, in the midst of change, one’s character is stretched, and it can be quite painful.

Don’t be afraid to help others, if you can.

Remember, all it takes is an inspiring word of encouragement from one friend to another to make someone’s day.

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