Friday, May 30, 2014

What's a degree worth now?

May 30, 2014


MY DAYS in university were marred by an existential crisis.

It wasn't so much because I was imbibing works - as a literature student - that made me question my own state of being, but more because I wasn't sure where my degree was going to take me.

Lecture halls were nearly always filled by the hundred, each student trying to best the other. I was just another digit among some 13,000 other graduates from my cohort, and an arts student at that.

It seemed like my degree wasn't going to give me that edge over other jobseekers any more, as it had promised when I was younger.

Back in primary school, life was a simple equation: Study hard and get into university, and a great career awaits you.

This was the Singapore Dream, one that had come true for many people of older generations - but perhaps not one that will hold true for the generations to come.

Singapore has changed. Where once, only a select few went to university and then saw their careers fall easily into place, we are now approaching a situation where almost one in two Singaporeans will be degree holders.

Come 2020, Singapore would see a 40 per cent cohort participation in its local universities, in addition to many pursuing private or overseas degrees.

If not managed well, this could lead to a graduate glut here, with too many graduates competing for too few good jobs.

The problem is that many young Singaporeans don't seem to have realised this. They are still conditioned by their parents' mindset that a degree must spell a good career. Armed with this piece of paper, they demand a good starting salary, almost as if it were a birthright.

Given the sheer numbers of degree holders coming our way, and applying the law of supply and demand, this simply cannot be the case. Starting salaries will fall, unless you have managed to specialise in an area where the economy is crying out for more people.

But the free market is a strange animal. Those who, in the past, might not have qualified for university, now chase general degrees that will give them no obvious advantage in the workplace.

And those who specialise in sought-after fields like engineering often branch out into unrelated industries such as finance and banking and make their money, while the shortage of engineers continues.

So, should graduates temper their expectations and settle for a smaller pay cheque or a less fulfilling role?

This is easier said than done, especially when so many Singaporeans have been brought up with about 16 years of formal education, thinking that pursuing a degree is the way to go.

Settling for less could also lead to job dissatisfaction - a phenomenon that is already at hand for the country.

According to a recent survey conducted by recruitment firm Randstad, employees in Singapore are ranked as some of the unhappiest in Asia Pacific, with 23 per cent of them feeling unmotivated in their jobs and that their skills are not being used effectively.

A friend, a business graduate from a reputable local university who is miserable in her current job, said: "The curriculum encourages us to be transformational thinkers, but companies expect their junior staff to be plodders.

"So we go in thinking we can make a difference, only to end up feeling depressed because we're just doing data entry, photocopying and filing half the time."

Perhaps it is time that we, as a society, as teachers, parents and friends, re-look the idea of pursuing a degree.

For me, it was four years' worth of exposure to a myriad of ideas, which eventually shaped the way I think and look at things.

For those who pursue it simply for the sake of their careers, it may be worthwhile to consider alternative routes. Instead of rushing straight to grab that degree, they might want to get some work experience first, which could burnish the worth of that degree.

For a degree can no longer be looked to as a passport to a good job and a good life; it has become more an enabler than a guarantee, more a necessary condition than one that is sufficient.

And this is a reality that everyone needs to accept.

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