So what if you have a degree?

By Benjamin Chiang

Once upon a dark age, people believed in a piece of paper called “a degree”.

They worshipped this degree and believed it brought riches, financial freedom, power and respect. Everybody coveted this piece of paper and they paid high prices for it. No matter how unreasonably expensive, they forked out the money.

And soon – a new type of business formed: the business of schools. They made it faster and cheaper to get this degree. And employers lustfully coveted it.

People started turning up with cheap, fast degrees and demanded higher salaries. It became a bleak winter in the world of academia. It became apparent that students were no longer interested to learn a skill, they were in there for a quick fix.

Over time, society started to ask questions: what is the point of this piece of paper? So what if a person has a certificate but is unable to cope with the realities of working life? What if this person is not able unlearn and relearn new skills?

As the world gets increasingly flatter and borders become increasingly broken down, we find ourselves in competition with people from far away countries. People who have better skills, better attitudes and can actually solve corporate problems. They may or may not have the paper qualifications to go with it, but give them a block of ice and they will make the perfect sales pitch to the eskimo.

Are our students equipped with the tenacity to deal and thrive under corporate pressure?

There is also the problem of under employment. Anecdotal evidence from interviews with graduates and human resource experts shows that even though large numbers of graduates are able to land jobs, some are underemployed – they are given work and salaries that are far below the worth of what they’re trained for.

There are a lot of jobs in Singapore yes, but are these high paying jobs? Many jobs don’t require a lot of brainwork and some really just need an extra pair of hands to do laborious work… and you can expect these not to pay very well.

We may have a very low unemployment rate, but I can’t seem to find data that shows our under employment rate. Are there enough high calibre jobs out there for the scores of graduates that we have?

In times like this, we need to question this: What is a degree for?

Is it nothing except a device that tells employers that this person has the basic skill sets for the job, and nothing more? And the skills that one has trained for could probably expire in 5 to 10 years time, then what's next?

Today, it is so easy to learn a new skill… you don’t even need to go to a school for it. My cousin learnt how to bake from scratch via YouTube and today she bakes the most amazing cakes I’ve ever seen. I’ve got another friend who learnt how to repair cars just by learning off the internet and speaking with mechanics. There’s no need for an ITE except to certify that you know how to do something.

(My cousin’s cakes! And she learnt it from just watching YouTube videos and trawling public libraries)

I never actually believed in the religion of the degree. Or the fairytale of lifelong, secure employment. In fact, when I was job hunting, I’d stay away from employers who worshiped qualifications blindly – because I knew with that sort of attitude, they wouldn’t be in business for very long.

Today, we need to arm ourselves against the competition the world brings…and the certification is only one part of the story. We need to arm ourselves with a weapon called “skills”. With this weapon we can stab the idol of certification in the back and show our employers that we can actually add real value to the business.

When I was working in London, my boss left me with a very valuable piece of advice. He said, “I don’t care what qualifications you have, you need to show me that you have tenacity. If you have that, I will have no doubt you’ll contribute well to the company.”

In today’s business climate, I think that piece of advice holds true. Have the tenacity, arm yourself with skills, build yourself a wealth of work experience…and the chances of you finding yourself unemployed or underemployed will become very much lower.

This article first appeared on Five Stars And A Moon. It is reproduced with permission.


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