When Degrees Are No Longer Guarantees

By Kwan Jin Yao

“In Asia, Taiwan and South Korea, have been experiencing an oversupply of graduates, with double-digit youth unemployment rates” (As Graduate Numbers Grow, A Hard Truth: Not All Degrees Are Equal1, 2 and 3, Ng Jing Yng)

That the degree is no longer a guarantee of meaningful employment comes as no surprise to most undergraduates and those who have toiled for years in the workplace. As policymakers fret over the potential implications of underemployment – wherein “highly-skilled people work in low-paying or low-skilled jobs, as well as when part-time workers prefer to be employed full-time” (TODAY, May 24) – individuals should realise that there are differences across universities, degrees, and courses, and that lifelong learning is imperative. This is not necessarily a call for prospective employees to be “skilled in multiple disciplines”, but for Singaporeans to develop a “craftsman-like approach” to continuous training and development, which could raise productivity or innovation.

Perhaps the most striking statistic from the commentary is the number of degree-holders segmented by age categories. It is 51.8 per cent for those aged between 25 and 29, 52.4 per cent for those between 30 and 39, and 37.3 for those between 40 and 49. The percentage should rise for younger generations.

Which is far from surprising. When one scales the academic ladder in Singapore completing a university education is the summit. For instance my parents – who experienced first-hand the disadvantages of not having a degree at the workplace – were eager to see me through university. In my secondary school and junior college the question was not “are you headed to college”, but “which institution are you headed to”, or simply “local or overseas”. Many of us took this privilege for granted. And after three years in the business school – because I hardly knew what was suitable from the start – I remain on course to graduate into uncertainty.

When one scales the academic ladder in Singapore completing a university education is the summit.

In this vein my internship stints have been most helpful. These attachments may not always be the right fit, though the months of exposure provide glimpses to possible responsibilities, interactions with colleagues, and the opportunity to put into practice lessons from the classroom. Alongside these undertakings pragmatic career guidance can shape ambitions too. Even in the autonomous universities where fees are subsidised the years of education do not come cheap, and such an investment would not pay off if prospective undergraduates had no clue of what they would like to accomplish in the next few years, or even in the future.

The main difficulty the government faces is the entrenched perception that a degree is “good to have”. Yet consequently the larger the number of degree-holders, the lower the value of the degree as a signalling mechanism, which explains why employers have diversified and made application processes more complex: assessment centres, requirements for work experience and co-curricular involvement, and even educational inflation. Since attempts to discourage students from heading to college will be to no avail, it may therefore be more useful to share these realities of disparities in degrees, as well as to impress upon them the importance of staying relevant all the time.

This post was first published over at the blog of Kwan Jin Yao on 27 May 2015. It is reproduced with permission.


So what if you have a degree?

Poly Grads are facing declining real salaries and greater difficulty finding employment

What kind of thosai does your degree resemble?