Kudos to you.
You want to do good and have a social service career in Singapore.
Well, it’s not going to be that easy.
Let me qualify that.
It’s easy to get a foot in
If you have the qualifications, such as a social work degree, or a psychology degree, getting a role in the frontlines of social service is not difficult.
Even if you don’t have a relevant degree, if you’re willing to take a lower pay, you can enter the corporate back-office, whether it be doing corporate communications, volunteer management, or fundraising.
But having a career in the social services, where you can grow in a structured manner, is a little more difficult.
There’s not a very clear career pathway within charities
Whilst the National Council of Social Services, the sector governor for charities, has tried to implement ‘high-po’ (young people identified as high potential within the organisation) programmes, designed for high-potentials to have structured career growth through rotations within the sector, this is only limited to around 80 people per year.
At the bigger charities, whilst there are greater efforts to structure a career pathway, it won’t be easy to find a charity who would be actively grooming you to take up leadership positions.
I’m not saying that there aren’t, but there aren’t many.
If you were starting out as a frontline social worker today, you would find yourself slowly moving up the ranks, from social worker, to assistant senior social worker, and eventually to leading the social work team.
The Career Development Guide, coproduced by MSF, NCSS, and MOH shares how the typical pathway for those in direct practice looks like.
But the path between each stage of your social worker journey is a little more complex than the tidy path offered above.
Tight resources make it difficult for your career growth
One key reason is because of how tight resources are.
I don’t just mean money. But it’s time, and effort to groom future leaders.
For example, in corporate organisations like banks, you would find that ‘high-pos’ are quickly put on a management associate programme, where they are quickly rotated within different job functions, to help them to get a good view of how everything comes together.
You would also see these high-pos being sent to training programmes that teach them how to be managers and leaders.
More importantly, you would see high-pos having personal face time with bosses, that quickly help them to adjust and grow in the positions they are at.
In charities, there’s a lot to do.
It means that if you’re a frontline social worker, you would probably not have much time outside of handling your current caseload to go for further ‘upgrading’ programmes to push yourself to the next level.
You would also find your charities hard pressed to give you the money to sponsor your additional training, especially if they are not covered by grants such as the Professional Capability Grant.
Here’s what I think might help you to have a more sustainable career, 2 years after working in a family service centre as a social worker.
Start with a charity known for people development, like Care Corner
Of the many charities in Singapore, the one I recommend is Care Corner.
Headed today by Christian Chao, who took over the helm on 1 August 2022, he has brought a deep expertise in Organisational Development to the charity.
It’s shown in the thought that has gone into bringing Care Corner into its next bound of growth.
If you look at the people section of what they accomplished last year, they rightly saw that talent mobility was key to helping young talent (like yourself!) remain engaged within the organisation, and see Care Corner as a good place to build and grow their careers.
As they share in their Annual Report of FY21/22,
With the solid foundation laid over the past three years, we are excited to move into our next phase of development where we aim to ‘change the way we care’.
And as they move into their next bound of growth, you can see that under the people section is ‘culture’.
This could potentially build an even stronger culture of support for you to develop your career in the social services.
What’s also important is that they don’t just think about the frontline services, but also the backend services such as fundraising, and communications. This means that unlike other charities that focus on service delivery, Care Corner also focuses on what can improve delivery.
Today, Care Corner is a broad multi-service provider with agencies doing work across different population segments such as:
- Family service centre
- Domestic violence counseling
- Volunteer management through SG Cares
You can quite easily find a role that suits you under its many services.
Look for a better boss
Not all bosses will develop you well.
In Sydney Finkelstein’s book ‘Superboss’, he writes,
If you looked at the top fifty people in these industries, you would find that perhaps fifteen or twenty had once worked for or had been mentored by one or a few talent spawners—or “superbosses”.
Likewise, these very same superbosses were responsible for a remarkable share of innovation in their industries.
One simple thing that has helped me to look for these superbosses within the social service industry is by asking colleagues,
who’s the best in the social service sector, in this field of people development that you would recommend me to speak to?
Better bosses make you better.
But too often, we tend to look for the ‘brand name’ organisation, rather than asking people we know if our direct supervisors are known for being good people developers.
You shouldn’t underestimate the power of a good boss.
With a good boss, he can regularly call out your blindspots and help you to see where you can grow.
But that also means that if you don’t find that good boss, you should think of leaving.
Yup. You didn’t read that wrongly.
Learn to quit fast
In my first job, despite the culture mismatch I experienced in my first 6 months, I chose to stick it out.
It got worse.
Eventually, I came to a point where I openly disagreed with my manager, and was later issued with a performance improvement plan.
At that point, a job offer came in.
But I chose not to take it, because I thought I needed to spend more time improving my skills, rather than running away.
In hindsight, that was a wrong move.
Because the right culture could have supported me to grow, but this particular charity I was at saw the Performance Improvement Plan as a checklist exercise.
Monthly, my supervisor would go through the checklist with me, and see if I had issues with it.
Whilst that was helpful, I didn’t think I was necessarily growing from the process by ‘avoiding’ failure.
Leaving when you don’t think its working out will be a better move.
Find the accelerator jobs
When I was at a British Chamber event, the High Commissioner there once spoke about two kinds of jobs.
One, the accelerator jobs, where one would learn a lot rapidly, and get the chance to interact with other influential professionals.
Within the public service, the most famous accelerator job is ‘Principal Private Secretary to the PM’, where one often sees those positions rising to key political positions.
One example is Lawrence Wong, who is currently slated to be the next Prime Minister of Singapore.
Secondly, they were the ‘icon’ jobs, where many aspired to be. Such as the CEO position.
But in the social service sector, these accelerator jobs are few and far between.
Finding them can be like finding a needle in a haystack. They can seem almost impossible to find.
One suggestion is to look for roles which allow you access to key decision-makers in the sector.
For example, one role might be corporate partnerships, which give you access to corporate donors and decision makers.
You might just find your next job there.
Grow in your skill level in clinical skills
If you’re a frontline staff, growing your clinical skill will be vital.
Grow in your managerial skill level
But if you were in the corporate office, finding a way to bigger roles may be difficult.
Christian Chao is one of the first few CEOs within the sector with no social work experience.
Another example is HCA Hospice’s fairly new CEO, Karen Lee, whose background has been in strategic planning and operations.
Most leaders within the sector today, tend to have an explicit social work experience.
But I suspect that as the social service moves towards greater professionalisation, people skilled at roles that are not traditional social work or frontline roles.
My personal reflections are that a deeper skill level in Organisational Development, developing the skillsets that will allow me to manage, and grow an organisation will be vital.
To those ends I’ve focused on the skills demonstrated under ‘thinking critically’, in particular sense-making.
For example, I’ve taken up process facilitation skills training with Facilitators’ Network Singapore.
But what can you do?
Grow in the strengths you’re best at, rather than trying to chase after the next fancy skill everyone talks about, like coding.
Are you sure?
The charity sector, whilst doing extreme good, is also a sector that’s still under development in Singapore.
It can be frustrating, especially when you’ve worked in other corporate sectors before.
You might compare it to previous corporate organisations you’ve been at, and wonder why things just don’t seem to be that reliable or efficient.
Simple things like turning up on time for meetings, can sometimes be hard to find within the social service sector. A common issue are meetings overrunning.
What can be difficult to overcome can also be the career growth you may desire.
Take ownership of your own career growth
What I personally did was to find courses that I wanted to attend, and pay for them whether or not my organisation wanted to.
For example, I went for the Advanced Certificate in Learning and Performance, paying a handsome $1890 even though it didn’t directly relate to what I was doing.
The other thing you can do is to seek mentors within the field. They can easily sponsor you to growth opportunities within the field, especially when it may feel that you don’t have
The field does have opportunities.
But you have to seize them when they come.