Filipinos Losing Out in Job Market Because of Inability to Express Themselves

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Filipinos Losing Out in Job Market Because of Inability to Express Themselves

by Manuel L. Quezon III

I recently had the opportunity to talk to an architect who heads a small firm. As I generally do upon meeting professionals, I asked how business was doing. Not well, he said, government assurances to the contrary notwithstanding. He’s of the opinion that at present, big, established firms do well, but everyone else is hard-put to make ends meet.

Our discussion pretty quickly shifted to his observations as a business owner and a manager of employees. How was he doing in terms of not only attracting, but keeping talent? Better than most, he replied, but it’s never easy. He says Filipinos entering the workforce differ from his generation (he’s in his forties) in terms of what he describes as having a ruthless, and nomadic, attitude towards employment. According to him, his generation aspired to either join an established firm and building a career within it, or to set up a firm and making it grow. He believes that Filipinos embarking on professional careers are now more interested in hopping from one employer to another.

Not that he blames them, he said. Salaries are so low in the Philippines that there’s no incentive when it comes to company loyalty. He says his solution has been to identify talent and then offer them shares in the company — something he learned from the Americans. That way, employees become partners, and everyone has more of a motivation to not only improve themselves, but improve the company.

I asked him what else he observed about his employees –their strengths and weaknesses. Immediately, he replied that young professionals are much more technologically accomplished than his generation. Add to this what he says is the innate artistry of the Filipino, and you have a powerful combination. On the other hand, technical proficiency and a sensitivity toward the artistic side of architecture can’t compensate for what he says are glaring weaknesses in the current crop of draftsmen and architects.

What weaknesses are those? He laments the deterioration in the quality of expression. Instruct someone to do something, and they’ll do it, he says — and do it well. Asking them to explain why they did it that way, or how they solved a certain problem or embarked on a particular design, is another thing altogether. They’re much less articulate, these days, he says.

The deterioration involves language: Not only is English competence disappearing fast, but asking employees to explain themselves even in Filipino is usually an exercise in hemming, hawing, vague terms and imprecise attempts to express what they’ve done. He says this is a tremendous liability in terms of accessing the foreign market. There have been quite a few cases, according to him, of pretty unimpressive designs put together by foreign competitors, which end up being chosen by prospective clients, because the Filipinos weren’t up to par in terms of pitching their proposals and explaining their ideas.

Another thing he observed was that this weakness in terms of expressing themselves, further weakened the self-assurance of Filipinos who set out to compete with foreigners. The last thing you need, he told me, is for your team to be struck dumb at the sight of a roomful of Americans. Just because they’re bigger, he says, doesn’t mean they’re better –and they have little patience with shy, diffident people.

Like most people of his generation armed with similar skills, he often wonders if he wouldn’t be better off simply trying his luck abroad. It’s no picnic, he says, but what makes him envy his classmates, many of whom have already left, is that they seem to achieve more, in terms of the work they put in, than someone putting the same effort into the same kind of endeavors at home. On the other hand, he is a firm believer that it is still better to raise a family in one’s native country than abroad; but he worries, too, whether his children will ever have the same opportunities he’s enjoyed.

The clincher, for him, was offering shares to talented, younger architects. And getting them to appreciate the need to not only invest in their own talents — a percentage of profits is set aside for trips abroad for the partners, not for fun, but to observe how architects do things in other places — but to seek foreign contracts. He says this frees them from an overdependence on the Philippine market, enables his partners and employees to earn more realistic fees, and inspires them to imbibe a healthy spirit of competition.

He’d rather make a little less now, but remain at home, and aspire to making more while building up his firm. This is not a choice most of his peers have or that Filipino architects entering the workforce have, he admits. He does hope that if more Filipino professionals begin to see how they could harness foreign opportunities without necessarily moving overseas, the path he’s chosen might open up for more. If only they took a dispassionate look at the things that could help or hinder in that effort, he suggested, then more of us could remain based at home.

Recently, representatives of some of the largest Philippine businesses issued a statement, expressing concern over a looming crisis. Emerging employment opportunities such as the market for call center workers in the Philippines, and nursing opportunities abroad, has resulted in a noticeable shift in the Filipino work force. The products of well-known colleges and universities, for example, who entered the corporate work force upon graduation, aren’t joining the corporate world in the numbers they used to. They can earn twice as much — or more — simply manning call centers. Filipino doctors are training as nurses, and nursing schools are bursting at the seams — while one Philippine university has had to shut down its engineering school.

The architect said that he shares the concern of the big firms. He also thinks the dominance of the top schools is coming to an end: In the past, he said, products of these schools had an advantage in professional careers; but even the big firms are hiring graduates from schools they once ignored, because their graduates are less fussy, and more hardworking. He doesn’t know how things will turn out, but like most Filipinos, he thinks it will all somehow, work out for the best.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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