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Young graduates struggle with increasing uncertain career prospects as Singapore’s labour market undergoes disruption

As labour markets worldwide – including in Singapore – undergo disruption in multiple forms, particularly with the advent of globalisation and rapid technological developments, fresh university graduates in Singapore seem to struggle with being employed in positions and sectors in their field of study.

Around 5.2 per cent of working-age Singaporeans below 30 years old are unemployed as of Q1 this year, in contrast to the unemployment rate of older Singaporeans at 2.5 per cent, according to the Ministry of Manpower’s statistics in its Q1 labour market report this year.

Two university graduates – one with a life science degree and the other with an economics degree – interviewed by The Edge Singapore are now working as a tuition teacher and a retail assistant respectively, despite their expectations of landing jobs in their desired sectors after graduation.

More puzzlingly, noted The Edge Singapore, is that the local universities they graduated from have consistently achieved high positions in global top universities rankings. For example, the National University of Singapore lands just behind the prestigious Imperial College London at 33rd place in terms of graduate employability worldwide in this year’s QS Graduate Employability Rankings.

An unnamed source told The Edge Singapore that local graduates’ apparent failure to secure jobs in industries relevant to their degrees – and instead working in seemingly unrelated fields altogether – “raises the broader question of whether there is a structural problem in the economy”.

While there have been efforts by the government to assist older workers in keeping abreast with the rapid evolution of today’s labour market, the prolonged presence of an older workforce in the local labour market will conversely delay young graduates’ entry into similar positions.

The disruption in the local labour market, coupled with shifting attitudes towards “traditional” corporate work, has compelled young graduates to build start-ups and/or to participate in the gig economy where freelancing and the “digital nomad” lifestyle is made the ideal work life to strive towards. However, as observed by The Edge Singapore, the challenge lies in whether said graduates have the entrepreneurial streak and creativity to thrive in business.

Young Singaporeans who are neither able to secure traditional jobs or make a breakthrough in the start-up world may be faced with the prospect of a “slower start in life”, which will tie into earning less over a life time compared to their peers who manage to secure certain career opportunities.

Fresh graduates and higher education institutions must prepare to be swift and more adaptable in facing labour market disruption: HR professional Martin Gabriel

Human resources professional Martin Gabriel told TOC in a recent interview that fresh graduates must prepare themselves to face the disruption that currently affects Singapore’s labour market by shifting their mindsets away from traditional career trajectories and equipping themselves with cross-industry transferrable skills.

When asked for his opinion on whether certain factors – namely their high expectations, the lack of available positions in the field of their choice, mismatched skill sets, or a culmination of all three – contribute to the unemployment of a substantial number of young Singaporean graduates today, Gabriel said that it is often possible that what the graduates had studied at university fail to match the ever-evolving requirements of the industry they seek to join.

However, he emphasised that such a situation is “not entirely their fault”, as higher education “institutions are still academically geared” or are unable to cope “with the rapid changes” in the labour market.

“Teach the old stuff and you’re basically a museum. Our economy may become much more volatile, as there is a greater sense of uncertainty. Universities’ syllabi can’t react fast enough to train its graduates to fit in[to the current state of the labour market],” said Gabriel.

Graduates of vocational institutes such as the Institute of Technical Education, said Gabriel, are not exempt from the negative effects of labour market disruption, as “by the time they [vocational institutes] come up with a syllabus and complete teaching, it becomes obsolete”.

Another factor that could be thrown into the mix, Gabriel theorised, is that many “high-level expat executives tend to bring their own countrymen” into the Singapore workforce, thus sidelining local university graduates who may be similarly qualified.

“It also doesn’t help that young people whose mind are conditioned to think that once they graduate, they will be set for life … Today’s job is seen as complimenting one’s lifestyle rather than a career,” he said.

Gabriel added that the disruption also manifests itself in the form of the advent of social media influencers, which may not always have a positive impact on the young generation.

“The Internet has influenced expectations. Those who earn by travelling the world and making videos project an image of having fun and making money. The reality may not be so as very few can be enterprising enough to succeed,” he said.

“Older jobs are evolving and losing their identity. As new technology enters the market and product life cycle gets shorter, corporate objectives and even job objectives begin to change. These sudden change gives rise to new jobs that are offshoot from traditional jobs,” he added.

Citing the example of the use of drones by media and photography companies, Gabriel observed that “the drone is seen as a tool to enhance videos and photos as it is able to shoot landscape pictures,” and that new job opportunities for young Singaporeans who pick up the skills to operate such technology may arise out of the creation of such tools.

While Gabriel acknowledged that most fresh graduates remain inclined to seek jobs that are “traditional in nature and identity”, he stressed that said graduates must prepare for the inevitable shrinking of such job opportunities and “embrace these new jobs and grow into it if those new jobs start to get established in tandem with better remuneration”.