Unemployment In Singapore: Is a University Degree Necessary Anymore?
Let’s not kid ourselves, times are bleak out there. And that is just putting it mildly. Due to uncertainties in the U.S presidential election (yes, by that we really mean the possibility of Trump ruling the U.S. with an unfiltered mouth and that curry puff hair) and slowdown in the Chinese economy, Singapore is experiencing one of the worst employment slumps in recent history. For the first time since June 2012, job seekers have outstripped job openings and fresh university graduates are taking the brunt of it. It is so bad, it has driven one particular Miss Elizabeth Boon to ditch the smiles and mortarboard hurls for doom and gloom in her graduation photoshoot.
But Singapore citizens on the whole are feeling the unemployment bash; compared to the previous quarter, unemployment rate rose from 2.6% to 3.1% as companies continue to carry out retrenchment exercises. Experts opine that global economic outlook will remain sluggish and the bullish economy we have been enjoying has fizzled out.
Worried yet? You should be. We hate to be the GoBear-er of bad news but that’s the reality of the situation. As we approach Halloween, the employment climate has, similarly, given us the creeps. If the invincible degree holders from our prestigious local universities can’t even find gainful employment despite their best efforts, does that mean that the S$35,000 (or more) piece of paper is exactly what it is – just a piece of paper? Has it lost its prowess to almost guarantee job seekers their jobs? Parents, should you still invest so heavily in your kids’ tertiary education?
To answer the latter question, parents would do well to shift their mindsets and consider plans B through to Z. Plan A –making sure kids end up in a local university—is no longer as feasible as 10 years ago. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam also expounded on the ‘mindset shift’ last year when he said Singapore needs to move to become "a meritocracy of skills, not a hierarchy of grades earned early in life."
There is no doubt that a university education reaps big rewards in the form of higher starting pay. Back in 2013, statistics on graduates’ median salary showed an increase from S$3,050 to S$3200. Their polytechnic counterparts merely hovered around the S$2,000 mark. The National University of Singapore (NUS) is the top research university in Asia. The Singapore Management University (SMU) reportedly has high number of fresh graduates who are either headhunted or employed within six months of graduation. The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has risen quickly on the world university ranking. Singapore’s fourth university, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), saw 85% of its pioneer graduating batch secure employment within six months. These facts are all fine and dandy on the graduates’ (and their parents’, obviously) end, but they seem to have forgotten that getting a job takes two hands to clap. Do their future employers see their uni certs in the same light?
Paper qualifications, at the end of the day, function as signalers that get you one foot in the door. The other foot requires you to adapt and be adept. And less picky. Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said as much during his recent speech, in which he highlighted that the job market is indeed challenging but graduates should be able to find jobs as long as they are driven and can adapt.
If you haven’t already realised, the buzz word these days starts with a S: Skill. Since the Budget speech last year, the government rolled out the SkillsFuture initiative and Singaporeans have $500 credits to spend on courses ranging from web programming to social media marketing to design. You might possess a business degree from NUS, but so do a great many others. We have a graduate glut problem. How do you set yourself apart from the pack? Maybe it is time for you to pick up the coding language? Even parents are increasingly sending their kids –as young as four—to learn the foundations of programming. In the IT sector, it is all about aptitude and problem solving skills, not academic scores.
As employers ourselves, we can testify to this: we seek to put together the best possible team to maintain GoBear as the top insurance comparison website and between two applicants, we would be more partial towards the one with professional skill relevance and in-field experience, over the one with straight A’s and little to no experience.
Look around you, a good proportion of companies in Singapore are now start-ups. Ask your friends, a handful of them are likely employed in one. The Silicon Valley fever has taken over Singaporeans and generous government support has mitigated the risks. Do you need a uni degree to start the next social media giant? Definitely not as much as ambition, determination and skills. Scoring A’s in those fields would give you that edge you need.
Arming yourself with a university degree is still of paramount importance, although it is fast being relegated to Plan B. It’s the new age; students, don’t beat yourself up over it if you can’t get admitted into a local university, and parents, don’t get too hung up on grades. When one door closes, another opens, right? There are always options. Scoring straight A’s and then getting First Class Honours doesn’t exactly translate into surefire success in life –not in such times.
What about those who are already adept, or exceptionally talented at a particular skill? Perhaps it is a sign now to think out of the box and make the leap of faith. Have always aspired to be a musician? Instead of pulling strings to get a job you’re barely passionate about, why not commit to strumming your guitar strings? Nathan Hartono should have much to say. Have always aspired to be a writer? Sit in a chair until you bleed words on the page. Kevin Kwan should have much to say. Have always aspired to be an Olympic gold medalist? Well, we did it twice this year, and both Joseph Schooling and Yip Pin Xiu should have much to share. Maybe you can help us do it again. Your university degree doesn’t really tell you that it is OK to take the road less traveled, does it?
At its worst, you tumble and fall and suffer the bad side of risk. But how bad can it get? At least you still have your ‘invincible’ university degree to fall back on.