Why upskilling alone will not help security officers get higher pay

Editor’s note: This post is sponsored by MOM, and should be read together with our comic “What It’ll Take to Raise the Wages of Lower-Wage Workers“. 

Earlier this year, we published a piece about the reasons why someone might find themselves underpaid.

A quick recap, the reasons were:

–          1. Lack of skill/bargaining power.

–          2.  Over-supply and/or under-demand for that skill.

–          3. Employer is unfair/not progressive.

We reached the conclusion that a person trying to raise their salary would be best served if they focused on Reason 1 first.

Which is to say:

If you want a higher paying job, much of the onus is on you to get in-demand skills, because once you do that, you can choose the industry or companies you work at.

Though the piece was originally published with our target audience (PMETs) in mind, many of the reasons for being underpaid also applied to lower-wage workers – like security officers, cleaners and landscape workers.

That said, we also hope people realise that:

There is one big difference between lower-wage workers and PMETs – CHOICE.

‘Getting a better job’ often isn’t an option

Look, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’d know that making a career switch is no easy feat.

You’d need to plan for the potential loss of income, spend after-hours learning new skills and perhaps even pay for a certification.

Not everyone has this luxury of choice. Journalists and flight attendants can make career switches because they earn enough to plan for the transition.

Now, imagine yourself as a security officer working 12-hour shifts, 5-6 shifts a week, and taking care of aged parents while getting by on $2,200/month.

You might find it hard to save even six months of income, let alone attend a $5,000 course in tech.

In addition, poverty or low income can often trap people in scarcity mindsets; affecting their ability to make better long term decisions.

Another point to consider is that even if some security officers make the transition out, it is very possible that who remain have already tried unsuccessfully to enter various different industries.

So how can we help security officers earn more?

Talking about increasing the salaries of security officers is one thing.

Actually increasing them is another.

Here are three things we can do to help increase their salaries.

Method 1: Change the perception of security officers

Hear us out: How much you are willing to pay for a trip to the hair salon depends on how much you value the hairdressing service: the stylist’s skill and experience, service standards, and the quality of products.

That’s why some stylists are able to charge $50 to $100 for a haircut, while others are able to dial it up to more than $200 for their services.

Currently, the hourly wage for security officers range from anywhere between $7 and $11 per hour. Freelance security officers might earn slightly more.

What’s stopping them from earning more?

A big part is instead, who.

Who refers to the people who actually use the services of security officers and cleaners –condo management committees, schools, offices, industrial buildings etc.

You might think you don’t have any part in this, but you do.

Indirectly, the users of condos, schools, offices and industrial buildings will need to pay more. Either through higher fees, or rent.

From our interactions with many condo owners, people are always looking for ways to decrease maintenance fees instead – much less increase them.

That seems to suggest that the jobs on the ground, including security jobs, are not perceived as deserving of a higher salary.

However, if we can change the perception of the value security officers provide, the public might be willing to pay more.

More public education on the duties that security officers actually do might change this –so that people don’t think security officers just ‘sit there shake leg’.

In case that sounds fluffy and silly to you, it isn’t. Perception matters, a lot.

Consider this: putting a Nike logo on a shoe not only changes the perception of a shoe. It also changes the value of the shoe.

Method 2: Justify the increased salary by being more productive

As much as we’d love for it to happen, not everyone is sold by the ‘perception’ argument.

This makes sense. Some people care about branding. Others don’t put so much value on branding, and prefer to look at OEM stuff. (For the uninitiated, OEM is factory-direct products without any branding whatsoever).

The question we should prepare ourselves for is this: Why should I pay more, when I can get it cheaper?

Typically, price or salary increases are justified by some increase or improvement in service or product.

Each new iPhone every year promises more speed, better cameras, a better iOS, a bigger number as a suffix.

Similarly, you can get a pay raise at work by being a solid performer, taking on extra duties, or bringing in more revenue for the company.

When it comes to security officers, the same rules apply.

Security officers can either do more of the current work, be receptive to upskill to adopt technologies and new working models that their companies introduce to improve productivity or improve their services so people find them more valuable.

For example, it would make sense to pay security officers – who work in settings ranging from condos to industrial buildings – and service providers more if the security services provided are augmented with new security technologies such as body cameras and surveillance systems for more effective services.

Of course, for their employer to pay them more, then so do the service buyers (the mall operators, condo facilities management etc.), and all the way down to the rest of us as consumers (mall tenants, condo residents etc.).

The big caveat here is that consumers MUST find the improved services worth paying for.

Method 3: Put it into law for security officers to be paid more

Another way to increase the salaries of security officers? Introduce government policies and legislation to compel customers and businesses to pay them more.

As unnatural as this might sound, there are two main advantages to this:

  • Changing the perceived value of security jobs, or making them more productive might take some time. But that said, security officers have families to feed and might not be able to wait for policy changes to kick in.
  • The chicken-and-egg argument: Companies and consumers might be unwilling to pay more for the services of security officers before they see productivity improvements. Perhaps the improved perception and increased productivity of security officers will come when they are paid more. Paying them more first, could act as an incentive.

The main two arguments on how exactly to do this are, of course, the Minimum Wage Model (MW), and the Progressive Wage Model (PWM).

Many have covered the differences between the two in much detail, with heated discussions from supporters of both sides.

The way we see it, the MWM is more closely aligned to Method 1.  Security officers will get pay increments with or without the need for increased productivity.

The incumbent PWM is more aligned with Method 2.  Officers get pay increments as they upgrade their skills and increase their productivity.

Implementing MW will definitely be faster, but the costs won’t be known until much later. On the other hand, for PWM, cost increases are deliberated, agreed upon and distributed between society, businesses, unions and the government. The main disadvantage here is time. You can expect slower outcomes.

TL;DR: MW – speed before clarity. PWM, clarity before speed.

Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, but make no mistake: either outcome involves us having to pay more.

‘Let the market decide’ can result in extremely brutal outcomes

We are aware of hardcore capitalists who like to use the phrase ‘let the market’ decide to determine what people are paid.

But here’s another perspective:

When we’re talking about people who have the option of switching jobs, ‘let the market decide’ is an efficient way to have things run.

However, the danger of unleashing market forces on the people who don’t have such options or bargaining power can lead to extremely, non-liveable salaries.

Look, economics is often an unavoidable part of running a country.

But ultimately, a country is more than just the results of economic theory put into practice. Above all, it is a community with shared values and beliefs.

Would you want to live in a society where we leave our lowest earners to fend for themselves?

We wouldn’t.

Here’s what we think:

Will upskilling security officers be enough to help their wages keep up with the rest of society? Of course not.

Changing the perceptions of them? Unlikely.

Minimum Wage? The data out there is mixed at best.

To be honest, even the Progressive Wage Model has its challenges. For example, the time and deliberation needed for multiple stakeholders to roll out wage increments can be a painful wait for workers who are earning low wages.

In reality, no one solution on its own will be enough, but the more players that make the effort, the higher the chances of success.

So yes, the security officers need to upskill. The government needs to continuously improve its policies.

Businesses need to be prepared to share more of their profits and productivity gains with their workers.

But what about you? Well, the next time your condo raises the maintenance fees, it’d help if you understand it all contributes to higher wages.

(And yes, being kinder to your security uncle wouldn’t hurt either.)

Stay woke, salaryman


Since 2015, the Progressive Wage Model has helped security officers improve their working conditions:

  • Wages have gone up 29% in real terms over the last 5 years (2015-2019)
  • Reduction in no. of overtime hours allowed to work from 95 to 72 OT hours per month
  • 12% increase in Security PWM lowest basic wage rung from $1,250 in 2020 to $1,400 in 2021

Click here to find out more about how the Progressive Wage Model is helping security officers.

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