Doctor, nurse, cleaner, garbage collector, hawker – these are the jobs that Singaporeans consider most essential in today’s society.

Yet, many shun most such work themselves, with 57 per cent of respondents in a survey saying they do not want to be garbage collectors, and 42 per cent rejecting cleaning jobs.

Conversely, occupations such as business consultant and human resource manager were ranked among the five most “non-essential” jobs but were also among the top jobs people want to do.

“A big factor in the calculus [of how people choose jobs] . . . is the ‘social prestige’ attached to the job – essential or otherwise,” said National University of Singapore sociologist Vincent Chua.

Willie Cheng, who sits on several commercial and non-profit boards, said the findings reflect Singapore’s increasingly class-conscious society.

“Ordinary manual labour is generally frowned upon in our knowledge society. It also does not help in shaping perceptions that many of these jobs are being performed by migrant workers whose availability has helped depress wages further,” said Cheng, a former managing partner at Accenture, a multinational company that provides management consulting services.

But perceptions have improved, according to the survey of 1,000 people commissioned by The Sunday Times and conducted by consumer research firm Milieu Insight Pte Ltd.

Two in three respondents agreed that their perceptions of essential workers in Singapore have changed since the Covid-19 outbreak started, with almost all saying their impressions have either “improved a lot” or “improved a little”.

However, only 17 per cent of those polled said they are more interested in working as essential workers now. Similarly, only 17 per cent of them are more open to having their children take up jobs as essential workers now.

Even if salaries were tripled, half would still say no to working as a construction worker, cleaner or security guard.

Cheng said: “The survey results show that the desirability of a job is not always correlated to the monetary compensation. One’s salary can create dissatisfaction if not sufficient, but by itself is not motivating. Motivators are matters like achievement, recognition, the nature of the work and growth.”

Nonetheless, respondents said that salary is very important, which suggested that for many, salary and the nature of a job go hand in hand.

About 22 per cent of respondents picked salary as the most important attribute of a job, behind only “job that matches my interest”, the top attribute for 37 per cent of respondents.

Economist Walter Theseira said it may be hard to separate interest from salary, as some people are convinced they are interested in a job when what has actually interested them could be the high salary potential or the lifestyle associated with the job.

“As an interviewer for student admissions, I never cease to be amazed by the number of students who sincerely tell me they have always found, say, accounting interesting.

“I assume that if garbage collection paid as well and had great career prospects, and admission to a training programme was selective, I would have prospective trainees tell me the same thing,” said the Singapore University of Social Sciences academic.

Dispelling misconceptions is key, said Security Association Singapore president Raj Joshua Thomas.

“We need to move away from the idea that security officers are general workers that can be called upon to help with errands. They are now often seen as arms and legs for general assistance to the managing agent or facilities manager.”

Instead, security officers are specialised personnel who spend a significant amount of time in training, he said.

The survey also found that age plays a part in determining how some jobs are viewed.

The younger generation – those aged 16 to 24, for instance – are more likely than the older generation aged 55 and above to view corporate lawyer, human resource manager and public relations specialist jobs as being more essential.

Younger people are also less likely than older people aged 45 and above to consider cleaning and garbage collection jobs as essential.

Delane Lim, 34, who does human resource consulting as the managing partner of Polygon Asia Consulting Enterprise, puts this down to different life experiences.

He thinks that younger Singaporeans may not think manual work is essential partly because they do not interact with or notice the “invisible workers” doing those jobs.

“The older Merdeka or Pioneer generations, however, have contributed greatly to Singapore during a time of struggle, hardship and sacrifice and therefore are more aware of the value of certain manual jobs.”

Young people’s perceptions could change if they, like Ezio Ng, 18, who dropped out of polytechnic, were to find themselves on a different path.

Four months ago, Ng chose to take up a cleaning job in an environmental hygiene company instead of a logistics role at a bookstore.

“People may look down on cleaners, but I wanted to try something different and experience what their daily life is like,” said Ng, whose job entails spraying disinfectant solution at various locations. He earns about S$1,900 (US$1,360) a month.

Also, any job can be a stepping stone, he said. “I do worry about whether the pay is enough for me to support a family, but I believe that in every job, there are skills I can learn that will be useful for future career progression.”