In recent years, the idea that everyone should strive towards attaining a university degree has become a focus of debate for education in Singapore.
Unlike the 80s and 90s, having a degree these days no longer guarantees one a high paying job. According to recent statistics published by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the graduate unemployment rate is currently 4.3 per cent in Singapore, the highest since 2009.
Why a degree is no longer a useful "signal"
In the past, a degree can be as seen as a signal that potential employees send to employers to show that they are likely to be good hires.
Here's the issue. A signal only works if it helps you stand out from others. For example, a guy driving a Lamborghini is signalling to everyone else that he is rich and successful because he can afford to buy an impractical and overpriced supercar.
However, if everyone in Singapore starts driving a Lamborghini, the "signal" that the Lamborghini used to give out will no longer be as impactful as it once was.
The same can be said for stalls in hawker centres. If newspaper clippings were a rare sight for stalls in hawker centres, then it provides an effective signal that stalls with newspaper clippings are likely to serve good food. However, if every other stall in Singapore starts doing the same thing, newspaper clippings will no longer be an effective signal.
The problem with having too many degree holders
The same concept applies to attaining a degree. Back in the 80s and 90s, there weren't many degree holders around and hence, being armed with a degree was an effective signal that a job seeker was more likely to be a good hire.
Let's be clear on one thing. A degree being more "valuable" in the past doesn't necessarily mean that all degree holders in the past were good, or that degree holders then were smarter, or that it was harder to get a degree in the past compared to today.
Whether these things are true or not is irrelevant to the fact that having a degree today is no longer an effective signal to employers that you will be a good hire. The value proposition back then for a degree was that it helps you stand out from your peers. This is no longer the case.
According to information published by Singstats, there were about 81,000 students in Singapore enrolled in local universities as of 2014. This number excludes part-time students from SIM and those who are studying overseas.
To better appreciate this figure, considering the following.
In the same year, there were total of 190,000 secondary school students. That means for every two secondary school students you see, there is one university undergraduate. Moreover, secondary school education is based over a 4 to 5 years period while university degrees tend to be shorter at 3 to 4 years.
With so many degree holders in Singapore, a degree (whether it's full-time or part-time, local or overseas) no longer helps you stand out from your peers.
What should young Singaporeans focus on instead?
If you want to increase your employability and stand out from your peers, you need to focus on areas outside of academic qualifications.
1. Know what you want to do
Having spent three to four years in university, it would be a disgrace if you have no idea what is it that you want to do.
And no, saying that you want to be an investment banker or a management consultant is not an answer, not when there are 30,000 graduates out there with who wants the same job and if you have no real chance of differentiating yourself from them and actually landing it.
2. Understand the sector(s) you are entering
There is absolutely no point in knowing what you want to do if the sector you intend to enter isn't even hiring fresh graduates. Examples we can think of include equity analysts' position that many finance graduates aspire to enter and certain corporate banking roles.
This problem isn't just constricted to the banking sector. Many other sectors such as the oil and gas industry have been affected heavily in recent years and you need to be aware of the job opportunities (or lackof) in the sector of your preference.
3. Have multiple internships
There are three important reasons for getting an internship.
The first reason that an internship allows you to be exposed to is the actual working world, where mistakes and slipshod work are no longer tolerable and when coming in late for a meeting is not acceptable, unlike your CCA in school.
In addition, you now have an actual boss, someone who is in-charge of you and whom you work under. You will be expected to follow standard operating procedures (SOPs) in the organisation (even if you don't agree with them) and be creative at the same time. It's no longer a democracy, compared to the school projects that you worked on.
Assuming you join the right company, the second reason why an internship is important is because it allows you to pick up valuable experience. For example, you might have learnt about marketing and public relations in school, but nothing beats seeing how it is applied (or not applied) in the working world. This experience allows you to know what you might be good at, and what are the areas that you need to improve on.
Last but not least, an internship is basically an extended interview. If you impress your boss and colleagues, there is a great chance that you will be able to join the department full-time when you graduate, as long as there is an opening. Even if a position is not available in the department that you interned for, you might be able to get a role elsewhere in the company.
4. Network (the smart way!)
There are two kinds of people when it comes to networking.
The first are the people who are desperately trying too hard. They go around chatting with anyone of position that they see during events and may even have a CV on standby (please don't do that).
They have clear agendas, whether it's getting an internship opportunity or looking to impress senior managers so that they can get a recommendation to join the company. This rarely works.
The second types are the people who don't appear to be trying too hard but somehow knows everyone worth knowing.
They are the ones who have spend time investing in genuine relationships with others without expecting anything in return, and whom these relationships are now paying dividends for them. These are the people who are getting approached for roles that are not even advertised publicly.
Be part of the second group, not the first.
Take control of your career
For far too long, young Singaporeans have been stuck in the mind-set that a great education is what it takes to kick-start a successful career. With the encouragement of their parents, they pour in a 100 per cent into their studies expecting that good results will pay off for them in the working world. They naturally get disappointed when they realise that prospective employers do not value their academic achievements as they do.
But remember, degree holder or not, there are still a lots of things within your control that you can do to stand out from your peers. And these answers lie far away from the textbooks.
DollarsAndSense.sg is a website that provides bite-sized and relevant articles to help Singaporeans make better financial decisions.