IN YESTERDAY’S article, I drew an analogy between the plot of Puccini’s famous opera Madame Butterfly and the modern work environment.

The two main characters, Madame Butterfly and Lieutenant Pinkerton, showcase two opposite attitudes to love. Madame Butterfly epitomises loyalty and clings to the past, while Pinkerton is the unsentimental realist who seizes opportunities and moves on.

The modern workplace has changed to the extent that stable, lifelong jobs are becoming a thing of the past. Workers who long for the “good old days” of the iron rice bowl and do not adapt to the new realities will find it difficult to compete.

Those who thrive are the ones who keep learning or upgrading their skills to enable them to take advantage of opportunities that come their way.

Some of these workers choose to be “free agents” — entry-level to mid-career professionals with a range of practical experience and professional expertise.

Being retrenched can happen to workers of all ages. For such individuals, becoming a free agent is an option.

If these workers are in their 40s or 50s, they are likely to have an abundance of experience and expertise, and often a wide network of contacts. They may even have highly specialist competencies, too.

But they also realise that finding a similar job, at a comparable salary, where their experience and expertise is valued, can be prohibitively expensive for potential employers.

The reason is that their experience and expertise may be needed for 25 to 50 per cent of the time, while the remainder will be occupied by lower-value assignments. As such, employers may find it is not cost-effective to hire these highly paid specialists as full-time employees.

If these specialist workers do not want to settle for lower-paid regular jobs, they may choose instead to become “gold-collar” workers. The term, coined at the dawn of the 21st century in the United States, identifies these individuals as well-experienced knowledge workers.

Their skills range from special problem-solving abilities to creative talent to the capability to undertake complex work. They have excellent professional and personal self-management skills.

Gold-collar workers in Singapore range from experienced professionals with management expertise, to those who have risen from the shop floor to top specialist positions.

Gold-collar workers are increasingly working in teams and undertaking projects where their combined competencies, experience, skills and knowledge are needed.

They may complement their teams with free agents for skills and competencies they lack. Some may even set up permanent consultancies and undertake projects locally and regionally.

They can forge alliances with other professionals in neighbouring countries, and offer services that include the complete planning and execution of major projects for mid-sized companies.

Researchers, academic and writers often describe gold-collar workers as “highly skilled multi-disciplinarians who combine the minds of white-collar workers with the hands of blue-collar workers”.

In fact, the recently announced pathway proposed by the Aspire (Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review) Committee is one way to develop the gold-collar workers of tomorrow through a structured and systematic process.

As job security and tenured jobs disappear, and the operational approach in the work landscape increasingly shifts to employability and professionalism, the significance of paper qualifications will decline.

The increasing demand will be for experience and expertise besides high levels of competencies. Even learning institutions and professional bodies know this. Many include an industrial attachment or practicum as a requirement for graduation and certification.

Universities are also offering distance-learning programmes, knowing that there are a growing number of people who want to develop experience and expertise concurrently with acquiring knowledge.

Free agents and gold-collar workers own the primary tool of their work — an amalgam of insightful knowledge, practical experience and expertise honed over the years, combined with tacit knowledge, which is practically impossible to replicate.

In addition, the best gold-collar workers also possess motivation and drive, which are further supplemented with a sharp focus on meeting objectives and goals.

Going forward, mindsets need to be changed. Neither degrees and diplomas nor experience and expertise alone will assure success. The new psychology of success is still a work in progress.

If an increasing number of people have degrees, the differentiator in future will be relevant experience, expertise and tacit knowledge. In the final analysis, those who, like Lieutenant Pinkerton, are adaptable, flexible and able to seize opportunities will experience success in varying degrees.

Security and stability in employment only comes for those who can blend insightful knowledge, experience and expertise combined with tacit knowledge.


Article by Kamal Kant, a part-time lecturer in Careers, Employment Relations and Management at Nanyang Technological University and SIM Global Education. He conducts career workshops and is a career coach in his spare time.