One of the common questions I get from readers on my Instagram is “As a fresh graduate or young working adult, should I choose to work for the public service, MNC or a startup?”
In this post, I shall attempt to answer this question based on my knowledge, research and also my conversations with others.
Just to share a bit about my background, I have a bit of experience in all three types of organizations. I have done internships in the civil service. Also, I have working experience in a Series C Startup. Right now, I am working at a US Technology MNC. Having experienced all these types of companies, I hope to use this post to share my objective viewpoint.
Please note that this is meant to be a general top line comparison. I am very well aware that under each of the categories, the firms could vary very differently. For instance, a Japanese MNC would be different from a Korean or American one. Similarly, for government agencies a place like EDB would be different from LTA. There are simply too many subcategories and it would hard to generalise and compare.
Also, I am no expert and am just a regular Singaporean. I am keen to improve my knowledge and is just learning like everyone else. So, if you spot any inaccuracies, please let me know and I would correct it. If you have any more to add, please feel free to let me know so that I can consider including it in my article.
Table of Contents
1. Working for the Public Service or Government Linked Company
I grouped Public Service and Government Linked Companies (GLC) such as ST Engineering, SMRT and Keppel Corp in the same category. My reasons for doing so is because there tends to be quite a lot of movement between the two. Also, they tend to have similar cultures and adopt similar HR practices.
Generally, if you start your career in the public service, you tend to be able to get a higher starting salary.
When I graduated in 2014, many who entered he private sector were earning around $2k-$3k while those who entered the public service earned above $3000 or even $4,000. Even as a trainee in NIE under the Postgraduate Diploma in Education Programmes (PGDE), the starting salary ranges from S$3,100 to S$3,500 per month.
In some roles, there is even a sign-on bonus which could range from $8,000 to $30,000! Not bad at all!
For your reference, here is a salary chart which I found on Salary.sg. I cross checked this with two other public servants and they mentioned it was more or less quite accurate. However, do bear in mind that there are other schemes as well. For MINDEF, it is the DXO scheme. For Foreign affairs, it is the FSO scheme.
Another benefit of having all these bands is because there is not that much wage disparity between two people of the same rank. In many firms, especially startups, the bands may not be so clearly well defined. This is because in the growth stages, they may not have properly put in place bands. Therefore, two people doing the same role with similar experience could have a huge pay difference.
Beyond the numbers you see here, public servants also get to enjoy a broad range of variable components to their salaries which include performance bonus, annual variable component, end year bonus and mid year bonus. In many private sector firms, you may sometimes only get the 13th month bonus, or simply just a performance bonus, or in many cases – no bonus at all.
You also get a steady increment every year though in small amount – which is also not the case for many firms in the private sector.
In addition to having a stable income, a public service job is also one that is meaningful and a platform for one to make a difference in the lives of others. That is also a reason why many, especially the older generation, have a lot of respect for the work that public servants do.
When you are working for HDB, you are building vibrant and sustainable towns. When you work for Ministry of Manpower you are developing a productive workforce and progressive workplaces. When you are a teacher, you are moulding the future of our nation. You get the drift.
For many who work in the private sector, unfortunately, no matter how nicely the mission is being packaged and marketed, sometimes, your role does not really add value to society. The uncomfortable truth is that it exists simply to make the Founder or Managing Directors even richer than they are.
A public service career, like many of our parents have told us, is also stable and more or less recession proof. If one sees a public servant on Coffee Meets Bagel or Bumble, it just just screams stability and reliability — appealing qualities to many who are looking to settle down.
What are the drawbacks?
If you are a woman, generally you may start off earning less than your male peers because of NS.
There could also be less diversity as these companies tend to mainly hire Singaporeans.
Also, I have heard and read that some factors such honours, type of university and degree influences salary and promotion. I recalled that when I was doing an internship with the civil service in late 2011, there were a panel of directors who were holding a town hall session with some employees.
During this event, the inexperienced, naive and younger Jeraldine asked “I heard that civil service promotes based on scholarship. Just wanted to do a quick survey to validate this – out of the 12 of you, how many of you are scholars?”
Only one lady did not raise her hand.
If this is really true, then it may not be the most favourable circumstances for those looking to accelerate their earnings. You may refer to this thread on Reddit and this other one for some insights.
If you are interested in joining the civil service, I would also recommend you to read “Neither Civil nor Servant: The Philip Yeo Story“. It was a very inspiring book and I learnt many interesting tidbits about former EDB Chairman Philip Yeo and his journey in the public sector. You may purchase the book here.
2. Working for a Startups and SMEs
The best thing about working for startups is that you generally get more exposure. For instance, if you are an account manager, you are likely to be able to get to cover the entire APAC region and also work with Enterprise customers. This enables you to make a bigger impact which would look great on your CV.
Similarly, you would often get to develop a wider range of skills as job scopes may not be so clearly well-defined. As Jack Ma once advised:
“Before 30 years old, follow somebody. Go to a small company. Normally in a big company, it’s good to learn processing. You are part of a big machine. But when you go to a small company, you learn the passion. You learn the dreams. You learn how to do a lot of things at one time.”
Many startups are also growing really quickly, so this often means you have a better chance for quicker growth.
As shared in this article Things Fresh Graduates should know before joining startups, “If you are working on a small team from the very beginning, you will be the one who contributes hugely towards business growth. If the business grows bigger and they recruit more people, you will be the one who will get promoted easily. That’s why most of the strategic roles in startup companies are filled by young people.”
“Despite what all the recruitment campaigns might say, these organisations can have a pretty structured promotion/increment system. That means even if you’re expecting to soar quickly through the ranks in a few years or overhaul tried-and-tested systems, you might want to keep your expectations in check. Conversely, SMEs and startups might not pay as well, but they tend to be more flexible with progression and job responsibilities.”
The Woke Salaryman
However, there are a couple of things to note about both startups and SMEs.
In many of these cases, “Doing what you love” has been co-opted by corporate interests, giving employers more power to exploit their workers.They may say things like “passion is more important than money” and use it as a reason to under pay you but make you put more effort. Or, glorify and award those who put in long hours.
After all, if you truly love what you do, pedestrian concerns about salary, health care, and retirement savings can take a back seat. Passion and devotion are what matter.
One of the methods to achieve such religious devotion is to erode the ‘identity boundaries’ between your work and non-work selves; to encourage workers to think of the office as a place where “they can have fun, experience personal fulfilment and express their creativity”.
In doing so, workers will begin to think of themselves as company employees all the time. They will embrace their roles so fully that they cannot conceive of themselves as separate from the organisation.
Employee protection may not be that good as many processes may not be in place because heir Human Resource teams may not be that well developed. As one of my readers who worked at a startup previously recommends “Always demand employee terms and benefits on the contract, even for part time roles Yes, some of these terms may not be exercised in your stint but you need to be legally protected with peace of the mind especially bosses can use legal threats to gain unfair advantage. If the company insist on a freelance/engagement contract, always sign as a PTE LTD basis to protect yourself against any liabilities.”
If advancement is your goal, you may wish to take note of family businesses. Some family businesses may not be able to give you that as priority and positions could go to those related by blood to them.
Not all of them are digitally ready yet and this could hinder your from becoming future-proof. How so? They may not have the ways of doing things or tools you need to master to be future ready. So remember to assess the tools they are using, to determine if taking up the role can help you to future-proof your career.
3. Working for an MNC
In my view, the biggest advantage of working for an MNC is the network you get the build because of the number of employees they have.
If you work in one of the best in your field, you get to network with the best and brightest in your industry. I look at the quality of fresh graduates who enter my company’s Management Associates Program and honestly, I have never ever seen a concentrated group of such bright, driven and passionate young people before.
As Co-Founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, described in his recent commencement speech to the class of 2020, one of his regrets in life was not joining Netscape. Back then, Netscape was the central node of the consumer Internet industry, “and that meant it was the best place for making high-value connections that could have had a major impact on my overall career arc and professional interests.”
If you have not read Reid Hoffman’s book, The Startup of You, I highly urge you to do so as it will share with you many valuable insights on how you can you accelerate your career and take control of your future. You can purchase it here.
As shared in my webinar, if you invest in strengthening your network, you’ll have a better chance of spotting trends when they happen. You’ll be better positioned to take advantage of the opportunities it creates. If you do not come from a big company, do not worry, I’ve put together a webinar on how to grow your network and you can watch it on my Youtube Channel.
There are many other advantages to starting your career in an MNC. Often, you get to learn the best practices in terms of processes.
Training is also often structured and well thought out as they have a team internally that is responsible for it.
On the down side, you may sometimes feel like you are a cog in the machine, not much able to make much impact or get much recognition. It can also be harder to stand out because everyone is so capable and competent. This means sometimes the best opportunities may not go to you.
Many have witnessed incidents whereby the person in leadership brings in people of his own nationality to join the team. The practice of hiring and promoting one’s own kind has been around for many years.
In my view, it is really unfortunate that something like this happens to our own Singaporean sons and daughters. This is our home country after all and to be discriminated in your home country is really such a sad thing.
Once again, I would like to emphasize that this is meant to be a general top line comparison. I am very well aware that under each of the categories, the firms could vary very differently.
I feel that starting your career in the public service, MNC, SME or a startup all has their pros and cons. To build a satisfying and rewarding career, passion is just a small fragment, and there are other variables which are important.
To figure out which pathway would best fit you, I feel it is good to use this time to:
(1) Define what a job means to you: Is a job a source of meaning to your life and central to your identity? Or, is it a means to earn an income to fulfil your other life goals? For me, it is the latter.
For instance, some things are not important to me like as “fun culture”. I don’t need my colleagues to be fun as long as they are team players and don’t skive. However, for your case, you may value different things.
Hope this helps. 🙂 If you’re keen to read more on my articles on building rewarding careers, you can do so here.
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