Degrees of underemployment: fresh graduates coming into the job market are facing a tough new reality that many are not prepared for

Study hard. Go to university. Get a good job. Right? Wrong.
Chng Choon Hiong

When Chris Lim, 26, graduated with a Bachelor of Business Management degree in December 2016, he didn’t expect that it would take him 10 months to land his first full-time job. After all, the Singapore Management University (SMU) graduate was “aggressively applying” and had sent out 70 applications in less than a year, only to be called back for less than 10 interviews.

He explains the Catch-22 he found himself in: some companies required at least one to two years of work experience for sales and marketing roles which, coming just out of university he did not have, and further, “they don’t teach you how to be a salesperson in school”.

For roles such as an accountant, universities provide that initial base to excel in the workplace, but for a lot of other roles, the market evolves at such a fast pace that academia can’t really catch up, Mr Lim says. Internships or contract positions have become the default job offer for many graduates, which they take on in the hope that they might eventually be converted to full-time employment.

According to annual surveys of recent graduates from the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and the Singapore Management University (SMU), only 78.4 per cent of graduates last year managed to secure full-time permanent employment six months after their final examinations. This figure was the lowest in 10 years, down from 79.9 per cent in 2016, and 89.8 per cent in 2007.

Even among the autonomous universities, a large pool of graduates, mainly in humanities or some science courses such as chemistry, remained unemployed six months after their finals – only 50-60 per cent found full-time jobs. The findings, revealed in the Ministry of Manpower’s 2017 Graduate Employment Survey, also point clearly to what jobs are in demand: almost all graduates with computing, accountancy, maritime studies and nursing qualifications found full-time jobs within the same period. And 100 per cent of those with degrees in education and dental surgery bagged full-time employment at above average starting salaries. (Full survey results at stats.mom.gov.sg/Pages/Employment-and-Monthly-Gross-Starting-Salary-of-graduates.aspx)

In addition, a greater proportion of graduates were engaged in either freelance, part-time or temporary jobs – a sign that the gig economy in Singapore is gaining traction and that the employment paradigm has changed.

Find out why not all degrees are the same in the eyes of employers in Singapore; read the rest of the feature here.