What kind of thosai does your degree resemble?

By Christopher Ng Wai Chung

For this weekend, I wanted to write an article on treating a degree as an investment just like a portfolio of stock and bonds. Fortunately for everyone, I was also ordering my thosai while thinking about this idea so I thought I could write an article on choosing degrees and eating thosai.

Let's start with some fundamentals

Degrees serve two purposes :

a) Equipping you with the skills to take on the modern workplace.

Skills are a degree's secondary purpose, in spite of what a minister tells you. If degrees genuinely equip someone with actual skills, then the university ranking would not be important when considering a new hire, management consulting firms would not fixate on just the Ivy League and Oxbridge qualifications.

In practice, there is simply too much domain knowledge that needs to be absorbed on the job before you can become a useful member of your company.

So get real about degrees. You get a degree in Engineering. You do not get a degree in Engineering from General Electric.

b) Signalling to the employer that you have the intelligence and intensity to become a company asset.

This is the true purpose of a degree. It signals to the employer that you have what it takes to get the job done even if the industry changes.

The degree makes you solve complicated problems you will never see in real life, write horribly convoluted essays on arcane concepts and throw group dynamic issues at you when you form project teams. If you survive, it tells the employer that you are a very safe option as a new hire into a management associate program.

I suppose this is the hardest truth that a savvy Singaporean has to grasp.

Now we talk about Thosais, degrees can be classified based on the Thosai they resemble.

a) Professional degrees are like Thosai Masala

Professional degrees are like Thosai masala. Thosai masala costs twice as much as plain thosai but is packed with potatoes and other goodies. Thosai masala is filling and robust.

The cut-off to get into these programs are high but the investment returns are also high. Survival is based on both the skills actually developed and the degree's signalling value.

Doctors must be able to cut someone up with great proficiency. Lawyers must understand the law. Engineers risk killing thousands if the bridges they design collapse.

My advice, that you do not need to agree, is that if possible, always eat Thosai Masala. It involves both high skill and high signalling. It is also exclusive.

b) General degrees are like Plain Thosai

Local general degrees are like plain thosai. Plain thosai is an institution and can be paired with different kinds of sauces for great taste. General degrees equip someone will skills which depreciate slower than professional degrees so they last longer and flexibility is a valuable commodity.

Degrees like Arts, Sciences and Business Administration are high in signalling but the skills are not directly required by the industry. If you analyse a job which requires a general degree, the skills requirements is normally no higher than that of a job which requires O levels. You can talk, operate email and present yourself, your skills qualify.

But things are not that simple. You will need to understand that the degree that you are getting is more signalling than skill. You will need to write well, speak well and network like an ace. Inevitably, HR practitioners will look at your honours classification and "provenance" to determine whether they should you, so grades will still matter.At the end of the day, such jobs pay well and continue to have their fair pick of top degree holders.

Over time, plain thosai can beat thosai masala. Plain thosai blends better with the sauces and sometimes thosai masala makes you full too quickly and you don't really enjoy your meal.

You need to signal well after graduation and then develop the domain knowledge with your general intelligence after entering your first job.

Ruthless Tip : Go for prestige. Don't try to pao kao liao (do everything) in a SME. That's a decision for gimps. Wanna work for an SME, start one of your own.

c) Private qualifications are like Paper Thosai.

Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with paper thosai, but what drives me crazy is that they cost twice as much as plain thosai yet it's creation is nothing short of wasteful. To make paper thosai, the cook actually scrapes some flour off to create the paper-like texture. It takes lot of effort and a sad waste of money to just make a paper thosai. It is also very oily.

This is the main issue with Singaporeans and private degrees.

The typical Singaporean insists that a degree equips him/her with relevant skill-sets and is the absolute key to securing a better life in Singapore, so they invest more money into private degrees. Private institutions exploit our kiasuism and see such people as goldmines.

It isn't helped by the fact that many HR practitioners and MNCs continue to see degrees as a signalling mechanism, as such they continue to review these private degree brands in a manner where they are unfavorably stacked against local universities and expensive overseas elite universities.

This is the rub.

If you invest in a private university education, you need to look at your resume and ask yourself the brutal question: What am I signalling to an employer when I show the company my academic history ?

The issue is not that you now have the skills of a graduate.

The issue is whether you can be elevated above the plain thosai and thosai masalas to qualify for competitive job placements.

Maybe it's time to address this the "Paper Thosai" problem.

If a private institution takes on anyone who can afford the fees which indicates a rather severe lack of quality control, they damage the signalling value of their degrees offered even if their graduates do indeed acquire proper skill-sets.

A degree without signalling value is no better than a piece of paper thosai.

Our government does not want Singaporeans to waste resources getting paper thosais in their resumes, it is unhealthy and the economy cannot have so many people spending so much time in school.

In conclusion, I think ASPIRE is the right move for our government to adopt. Think like an investor. Maybe getting a job is better than buying a paper thosai qualification. Those years spent on working rather than aimless studying translate to more years to compound your savings because time is on your side. You can get into sales where your qualifications would not matter at all and who knows, might even earn your first million by the time you hit thirty.

P.S. The missing un-named thosai which is all skill and no signalling has not been invented in Singapore yet. It is either the apprenticeship system the government is trying to construct based on the German model or the idea of development bootcamps. Pray that this idea succeeds and we get a new thosai to munch on.

This article was first published over at the Growing Your Tree of Prosperity blog on 18 May 2015. It is reproduced with permission.


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