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MP Zainal: ‘graduate poor’ earning less than $2K a black swan in our labour landscape

A recent survey conducted by National University of Singapore (NUS)'s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, in partnership with Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute, revealed worrying statistics of seriously underemployed Singaporean graduates.

Out of 1,626 Singapore graduates surveyed, 4.3% were considered severely underemployed. Despite working full-time, these graduates, now forming a new class of Singaporeans called 'graduate poor', earn less than $2,000 per month, even lower than that of diploma holders.

The median age of the 'graduate poor' is 35 years and a majority of them had no children. They had 10 to 15 years of working experience and were employed at businesses that serve mainly the domestic market. Even though more than three-quarter of them acknowledged that their employers had recognised their educational qualifications, yet they were being grossly underpaid.

These underemployed 'graduate poor' lament being underpaid. They feel they have a lower status at work and possess inadequate retirement savings. They have little confidence in their income and job security, and some of them even experience difficulties covering their daily expenses.

"These are the ‘graduate poor’ and it is a black swan in our labour landscape," said NTUC Assistant Secretary-General, Member of Parliament Zainal Sapari, in a blog post on a NTUC website on Tuesday (10 Apr).

According to investopedia.com, a black swan is "an event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and is extremely difficult to predict. Black swan events are typically random and unexpected", or perhaps in the words of former Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Yaacob Ibrahim, happen "once in 50 years".

Underemployed by circumstances

MP Zainal wrote that these 'graduate poor' could be underemployed by circumstances. "Sometimes, opportunities may have been scarce or may not have been spotted by these graduates," he said.

"At other times, they may have been too quick to take up any job offer that came their way, to bring in an income to pay their bills and daily living expenses. This group may then find themselves stuck in that 'lesser' job role and may find it increasingly difficult to venture out after settling in."

His solution? To ask these 'graduate poor' to upgrade their skills.

"The Government has introduced many programmes under the Adapt and Grow initiative to help mid-career professionals such as the Professional Conversion Programme to help professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) acquire new skills and move into new occupations with better prospects and progression," he said.

He then talked about advancement in technology that could affect all of us.

"I think hardly anyone would suggest that those graduates who are underemployed are entirely to be blamed for it. Advancements in technology, artificial intelligence, even changing market preferences result in constant changes that threaten the future of work, and in turn, our rice bowls. This is an alarming reality facing every worker," he added.

Touting NTUC's efforts, he asked Singaporeans to "reskill or upskill" under its Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) program, "A degree from even a top university cannot protect you if your skill sets have become irrelevant."

But he did ask policy makers to "keep track of this black swan". "Graduate underemployment can become a newly emerging structural problem demanding structural solutions," he opined.

Still, he is confident that his ITM programs can help the 'graduate poor' as well as the rest of Singaporean workers. He said, "So, with the 23 ITMs being rolled out, surely they can (with targeted help) secure a job placement that allows them to reach their fullest potential."

Meanwhile, it has been reported that the number of foreign PMETs continued to increase last year, competing with our local PMETs for jobs here. The number of EP and S-Pass holders has hit more than 370,000 since last year.

Opposition Lim Tean: 'graduate poor' not a 'black swan' event

Commenting on MP Zainal's blog post, lawyer and politician, Lim Tean wrote on his Facebook page criticizing the government's policies: "PAP's Dismal Policy Failures Create Singapore's 'Graduate Poor'"

Referring to the People's Action Party (PAP) government's policy of growing the local economy through importing more foreigners onto the island Singapore, he said, "I have long inveighed against the PAP’s lack of ideas on how to grow the economy. I have never believed that the economy has actually grown in real terms for a good number years."

"It is not difficult for an increasingly meaningless statistic such as GDP (Gross Domestic Product) to grow when the cost of living increases and population headcount keeps growing," he added.

Mr Lim emphasized that the 'graduate poor' is not a 'black swan' event.

"And contrary to what a PAP MP, Mr Zapari is saying, it is not a black swan event. He must be living on another planet! For years I have encountered in my walkabouts graduates with outstanding degrees who could not find employment or took an inordinate length of time before they found one, often unsatisfactory work," Mr Lim countered.

Mr Lim also opined that there is a lack of innovation in our economy.

"And yet PAP Ministers spend their energy and time on legislation clamping down on Civil Liberties such as freedom of speech in order to strengthen their hold on power," he asserted. "There is a direct correlation between innovation and freedom of expression."