Unlike in many countries, working in English-speaking Singapore is legal (with the right visa) for female expats, and there are countless international companies and fabulous small businesses offering challenging roles. This fact, coupled with affordable, accessible childcare, means that Singapore has plenty to offer women seeking work. The flip side is that it’s not always easy to find the right job. Starting from scratch in any foreign country is a challenge, too, as is learning about the local job market, visa rules and regulations, and workplace culture. We sought advice from a successful job seeker, recruiter and executive coach about how to kick-start a career here.
Visas: things to know
- The Fair Consideration Framework allows affirmative discrimination and employers are required to consider Singaporeans fairly before hiring Employment Pass (EP) holders.
- A quota system regulates the ratio of foreign and local workers in the workplace.
- Dependant-pass holders are entitled to work once they have a Letter of Consent, which their employer can apply for. It’s a relatively straightforward process and applications are generally processed quickly by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
- While it’s not impossible, those on visitor passes hoping to apply for EPs may find it more of a struggle to get a job. Karin Clark says it is increasingly difficult for employers to get approval to hire foreigners.
- In 2014 the MOM has placed a strong an emphasis on the quality of the educational qualifications and institutions that the applicant has attended when assessing applications.
- For a preliminary indication of the likelihood of obtaining an EP or S Pass, use the online Self-Assessment Tool prior to submitting the application. Also, check the MOM list of strategic skills in current demand, and skill-sets that are expected to be in strong demand in the coming years.
Tips for getting a job in Singapore
- Make sure your resume is up-to-date, and tailor your references to suit the job you are going for. These should reassure the hiring manager that you truly have the right skills for the role.
- Make sure you have all your official documents including birth certificates, personal identification and university transcripts at the ready. Singapore-based employers will likely ask for these and you may need to provide original copies.
- Put together a portfolio showcasing your relevant skills and experience. This can be hard copy, digital or on a website.
- Find out which recruiters are specialists in your field and go straight to them. See which company is posting jobs you’re interested in and call them. You’ll have a much better chance of breaking through the noise if they’ve met you and identified you as suitable talent.
- Get out and start networking. Many expats find jobs through their networks rather than applying for jobs blindly.
- Be realistic about your salary. Remember that Singapore’s low tax rate will often offset a lower base salary.
- Spend time searching for a job every day until you get one. Searching can be a full-time job in itself. Stay determined and active.
- Attend interviews, even if you’re not 100 percent sure you want the position. Many companies can create roles for the right person, but they have to meet you first.
- Don’t be surprised if you’re asked personal questions, including your religion and whether you have children, at interviews.
- It’s common to be asked to submit a photograph with your resume.
Advice from: The job seeker
American Himani Swami moved to Singapore four years ago after her husband accepted a role here following a two-year stint in Switzerland. Now working 30 to 40 hours a week between a teaching role as an associate lecturer at the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS) and casual international school teaching, the mother of two school-age children says she had enormous difficulties finding a job.
For Himani, Singapore was a huge contrast to Switzerland, where there was no childcare and strict visa conditions meant she could not work. “This was difficult as I had worked full-time in the US while my kids were cared for by their grandparents. Arriving here, I was keen to get back into it,” she says.
With no friends, and adjusting to a new culture, she initially found Singapore a challenge. “For the first year, I applied for roles advertised on websites but never heard back. When I did get a call back for an interview, it was apparent that the hours and pay were not worth it. Now I realise I was over-qualified for a lot of jobs.” (Himani has a PhD, an MBA and two Masters degrees.)
“In the end, we applied for Permanent Residency and got it. That helped a lot, I think because people take you more seriously, especially in a specialised field like mine. My background was working as a scientist in corporations and academia. When I came here I was not looking for education, but roles in hospital administration; but those are demanding, with high stress levels, and not compatible with kids and a travelling husband.”
Having been through the job-seeking experience, Himani’s strongest recommendation is to tailor your skills to the local job market. “I got the first teaching job I applied for and rediscovered my passion for it.” At MDIS she teaches epidemiology and biotechnology to Masters’ degree students, and as a relief teacher, she teaches children aged 10 and younger.
To women currently looking for work, Himani says, “Don’t be miserable; get out and meet people, and enjoy the time you spend looking for a job, because chances are you won’t have it again. Approach employers personally if you can and if you want to stay long term, consider applying for PR because there are benefits. Importantly, don’t turn down an invitation; you never know who you will meet and connect with.”
Advice from: The recruiter
Karin Clark is well versed when it comes to job seekers’ questions about the local market. According to Karin, Regional Director for Asia at Font, a recruitment company specialising in digital, marketing and creative talent, “the first job is the hardest to get.”
She says one of the impediments to getting a job is not having any Asian experience. “If you’ve ever worked in a company related to an Asia-based company, or if you’ve dealt with any other Asia-based business people, make sure you talk about it. Companies will hesitate to hire people who have no experience of living in Asia, or of working within the culture of an Asian organisation.”
She cautions that language and communication can be a barrier for expats arriving from countries that do not speak English as a first language. “If their written or spoken English is weak, they may struggle to land a role,” she says. Some job seekers report not speaking Mandarin as a disadvantage.
The easy availability of childcare in Singapore is a great help. “However,” cautions Karin, “there are fewer part-time jobs, and employees take less maternity leave – generally four months – than in other countries. Annual leave allocations are generally less generous, too, though you’re more likely to receive healthcare benefits.”
Karin adds that employees in Singapore can generally expect to work longer hours. “You’re likely to start later and finish later than what you might have been used to. Also, most employees take a minimum of one hour for lunch, and it will be expected that you join and eat together with them,” she says.
As Singapore is a regional hub that sits conveniently between the Australasian and European time zones, you might find yourself on calls for colleagues and clients in the US and Europe. She also says not to be surprised if your Singaporean colleagues wish to include you in their social networks, by socialising outside of work and following one another on Facebook.
“If you’re in a senior position, you will need to be wary of what you share on social networks, and with whom,” says Karin. “You should make an effort to accept invitations for cultural events and life milestones such as weddings.”
Advice from: The executive
With 20 years’ experience in Singapore and over 30 years in a career spanning finance, executive development, coaching and innovation, Tara Kimbrell Cole can offer plenty of wisdom and insight. She says that while finding a job is hard, she believes that because Singapore is a transient place where people come and go, it can be much more welcoming for job seekers than many other cities. “While work cultures vary from company to company, I do think Singapore is very cosmopolitan and the diversity is exceptional; you just need to understand your own ability to adapt.
“There tends to be more focus here on degrees than experience and the ‘softer’ skill sets like judgement, perception and evaluation,” she says. Tara has often heard exasperated women say that despite their years of experience at senior levels, the local recruiters and employers don’t know what to do with them.
Yet there are many things women can do to get a foothold. “Don’t underestimate the importance of joining the country chambers and associations. There are also numerous women’s organisations, such as Prime Time, to get involved with. It’s usually possible to go to lunches and events without being a member, to help you decide if you’d like to join. Networking is very important; a lot of people think it’s about getting business cards at cocktail parties, but it’s really about building relationships,” she says.
Another suggestion, if you have the appropriate skills, is to look for contract work within your partner’s firm, and then try to move to a permanent position. “Get in the door so they can get to know you,” says Tara. “I know a woman with management and finance experience who moved here with her husband and got herself a contract role in his large corporation. When she stopped work to have her second baby, which is something every working woman has concerns about, it was a challenge to get back in. Eighteen months later she returned to networking and was able to get a job as she knew the industry well. She wasn’t exactly thrilled with the role, but she was in. That’s the smarter way to do it. Get in, get working and then move. But don’t stay on the outside.
“Woman also have to invest in themselves,” Tara adds. “Individual development and self awareness are very important, though a lot of people are reticent in that way.” Tara runs “Lean In” circle sessions, aimed at supporting women in their career and personal development. “With the right coaching and support,” she says, “you can grow dynamically in much less time than if you wait to figure it out yourself.”
If you can’t get a job, or the timing’s not right for you to enter the workforce, use the time for re-education and training. “There are numerous free lectures to attend, or you could study for a new degree. All the big-name universities are here, even Yale. It’s predicted that the children of today will change careers six times in their lifetimes, so the key to ongoing employment is keeping yourself current and relevant to the times.”
Networking: Why you should get into it
“When I moved to Singapore two years ago, I was unsure about how to look for a job and what my options were. Networking proved to be the most useful tool as I was able to meet potential employers face-to-face as well as people who could give me advice about the current climate, opportunities and processes here. I had access to information, support and expertise that I would not have been able to find online. Meeting an array of people who understood how to navigate the local employment scene gave me valuable perspective, and I was grateful to be part of a community rather than feeling isolated in a new country.”
– Lara Kanga, Regional Manager, The Athena Network, Singapore and Asia Pacific
Help is at hand: Get started with these
- ANZA Career Centre
- Athena Network
- CRCE (see their online brochure)
- Linked In | Many successful job seekers have suggested connecting directly with potential employers.
- Lean In Circle (facilitated group-coaching sessions focused on career support and development for women)
- Mums At Work (listing of part-time jobs)
- Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations
For more helpful tips head to our living in Singapore section.