Foreign graduates on S'pore govt bonds finding job hunt tough

SINGAPORE - Some foreign graduates on Singapore government grants and scholarships are finding it hard to find jobs here because of tighter labour rules.

Despite signing agreements to work here for three or six years upon graduation, they are finding it tough to fulfil their bond obligations.

"I came here with the understanding that Singapore is paying for my education and I must repay the generosity by working here. But I found it so hard to find a job," said Mr Fery, 23, a National University of Singapore (NUS) science graduate from Indonesia.

He was a Ministry of Education (MOE) tuition grant recipient and signed a three-year bond. He took 10 months to find employment in a consumer data research firm.

Like the dozen from China, Vietnam and Indonesia who spoke to The Straits Times, he asked not to be named in full for fear of jeopardising his work pass.

Their challenging search is a contrast to most local graduates, who usually get offers before leaving school, said human resource analysts.

In recent years, Singapore has urged companies to consider locals first for jobs through measures such as raising salary requirements for foreigners. Headhunters said these policies have led to fresh foreign graduates being "caught in the middle".

They noted that, on average, foreign graduates are waiting up to six months to get a job now.

A ministry spokesman told The Straits Times that eight in 10 foreign students on MOE grants who graduated from a polytechnic or university in the past three years started work immediately or applied to the ministry to start serving their bonds at a later date to further their studies.

The rest, she added, may not be bond defaulters as some could still be job-hunting.

The spokesman said students who face difficulty in finding jobs can approach their schools' career centres.

For those on a long job hunt, they are allowed to stay here on a year-long social visit pass after graduation. Most get by on their savings.

Mr Charles Zhuang, a business development manager of recruitment firm Encora, said the minimum salary requirement for the highest-tier Employment Pass (EP) has been raised to $3,300, but many companies are not willing to pay that much for a fresh graduate.

The alternative is to hire them on a lower-skilled S Pass, which has a lower salary requirement of $2,200 and offers lower chances of securing permanent residency. But many companies cannot do so as they have reached the quota for S Pass workers.

"The message from the Ministry of Manpower to companies is clear. Hire Singaporeans first since it is so difficult to hire a foreigner," said Mr Zhuang.

Getting a job was not the end of their troubles for some foreign graduates. They still had to get their EP approved.

The scholarship holders said they hope the Government can help them though job-matching, for instance.

"Some Singaporeans may think we are asking for preferential treatment. But we are not. What we are asking for is a chance to serve our bonds and contribute to Singapore," said scholarship holder David, 27, from China.

He has a six-year bond and graduated from NUS with a maths degree. He took six months to get a job as a finance executive.

The foreign graduates pointed out that one downside of the tightened hiring policies is that some of their peers may cite difficulty in getting jobs as an excuse to leave Singapore without serving their bonds.

They asked that MOE allow them to defer their bonds if they cannot get employed.

This has been done previously. In 2001, for example, non-Singaporean graduates on tuition grants could have their bonds suspended for a year if they could not get jobs upon graduation or lost their jobs.

Ms Irene, 24, an MOE tuition grant recipient and engineering polytechnic diploma holder from China, has been looking for a job for almost five months, but to no avail.

"I am not sure how long more my money will last," she said.

One graduate decided to do something about the difficulties many of his compatriots faced - by creating videos that shared tips on how to find a job.

Engineer Qin Jiabin, 25, has recorded and uploaded four videos on YouTube featuring interviews with Chinese scholarship holders who graduated here, as well as headhunters talking about the criteria foreign graduates have to meet to get employed.

This article was published on April 29 in The Straits Times.

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