On 9 September 2018, the Workers’ Party Youth Wing held its first Youth Voices on the topic of getting young Singaporeans employed. Below are a few of the main points which arose from the discussion.
These ideas do not necessarily represent the views of the Workers’ Party but rather are reflective of the opinions expressed by participants at the discussion.
1. Should Government be in the business of job creation in the private sector?
The deliberate attempt by the Government to develop a biomedical sector raised questions about the results in terms of sustainable job creation. In the current era, where technology advances and disrupts faster than before, there is greater uncertainty over which industry will create more or fewer jobs. The Government may not always be able to make the right predictions about what products and industries will emerge winners.
In the public sector (in healthcare and education for example), the Government does bear the responsibility for sustainable job creation. Some of these responsibilities include ensuring minimum working conditions (such as minimum wage), protecting workers when they are in between jobs through universal basic benefits such as healthcare, unemployment insurance, childcare and housing, and closing the wage gap for poorly paid jobs of high social value (e.g. the nursing profession).
One participant opined that the Government, rather than trying to anticipate future industries, should focus on policies that ensure maximum adaptability – such as providing decent social safety nets, good public services and essential infrastructure.
What should the role of government be in the private sector and how can the Government best address the fact that no one cannot perfectly predict what the industries, products and technologies of the future will be?
2. Jobs, income and dignity
“Should I earn $X by age Y? Am I good enough?” is a question many young people ask themselves today.
Employment is now viewed not just as a source of income but also as a source of dignity. Allowing ourselves to be defined by work and judging one another by the work we engage in, let alone the income we earn, is unhealthy. Several participants felt that we should reject values that tie self-esteem to income-earning power, even as we ensure access to jobs and dignity for all.
This prevalent culture of believing “how much pay you get is how much you are worth” is a symptom arising from the weakness of social safety nets, and breeds bad decisions.
How can a better understanding of dignity inform policy decisions to benefit workers?
3. Public degrees, private degrees, or none?
When considering the pursuit of higher education, the Government cautioned against obtaining a university degree for the sake of getting a degree1. This view was seen by some participants to not sit well with the experience of most young Singaporeans, as the job market favours graduates in terms of career advancement and remuneration.
Among the pool of graduates, 47.4% of private university graduates were employed in full-time permanent roles 6 months after finishing their studies The comparable figure was 78.4% for public university graduates2. In addition, the mean salary of private university graduates was found to be significantly lower than that of public university graduates.
It was also unclear if what the Government advocates and what it practices as a hirer is consistent. A higher proportion of autonomous university graduates are hired by the Public Service as their first job compared with the pool of fresh graduates of degree-conferring Private Educational Institutes, Polytechnics and ITE, based on data revealed in the Government’s answer to a Parliamentary question filed by a Workers’ Party NCMP on 9 July 20183.
Some participants also felt that more could be done to change mindsets of both employers and employees to not peg salaries closely to educational attainment but rather to actual contribution at work.
How can the public sector lead by example in terms of their hiring requirements and practices? And if getting a degree is so important, what else can be done to ensure more Singaporeans have a chance to fulfill their aspirations?
4. Is the current education system part of the problem?
Graduates vs non-graduates, scholars vs non-scholars, public vs private universities – the exclusive clubs which emerge from this way of thinking can be damaging. If one is not a scholar, one is seen to be a failure. Not only does this way of thinking affect the self-esteem of young people, it breeds aversion to entrepreneurism, unconventional career pathways and taking risks.
Some participants felt that, to address one of the reasons why some employers hire foreigners over locals, we should reflect on our education system and find ways to improve its ability to nurture workplace leadership and not only managerialism.
Should learning be more experiential, more specialised and more reflective of the new economy?
5. We are Singapore, Singaporeans? Home, truly?
Multinational corporations (MNCs) can be fickle, leaving Singapore when alternative locations enable them to operate more profitably. Some participants felt that local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) may place more value on their social contract with their country of origin and tend to be more “sticky.” If this is the case, Singapore needs to make start-ups and SMEs more attractive to young Singaporean workers.
Some participants felt that many Singaporeans choose to working overseas so that if they fail, they will be subject to less embarrassment at home and many may not return until they have “succeeded” abroad. If one prefers to fail overseas, rather than feeling that one can take risks and fail at home, that points to a need for cultural change towards greater acceptance of risk-taking and failure.
Can we change young people’s perceptions of SMEs and start-ups? Can we establish a culture that not only celebrates successes but is also understanding of failures?
6. Gaining a foothold in today’s competitive job market
Personal aspirations should not be underestimated and priced. In deciding whether to pursue higher education or to take risks, young people’s focus should be on growth and exposure, rather than salary alone.
One participant urged youth to consider taking up sales jobs, which tended to be unpopular among Singaporeans but which may prove more stable amidst industry disruption since selling skills could be transferred across industries.
Another participant cautioned youth against choosing careers in fields that may become redundant due to industry disruption, cost-cutting and disintermediation.
Keeping up with the times, developing highly transferable skillsets, networking, and having positive attitudes can boost employability.
Some participants felt that it was harder for young Singaporeans nowadays to land permanent jobs where they could obtain training and exposure, as many employers were offering only contract, freelance or part-time positions and there was also intense competition from more mature workers as well as foreign applicants for jobs. The Government revealed, in reply to a Workers’ Party Parliamentary Question, that the percentage of Polytechnic and ITE graduates working in a contract, part-time, temp or freelance capacity has increased from 23% in 2007 to 42% in 2016 (partly due to more working flexible while undertaking further studies)4.
What can young Singaporeans do to stay ahead in the job market? What should the Government and society do to better enable young Singaporeans to get a foothold in the job market and gain vital experience?
1 The Straits Times, 24 Sep 2016: Private school graduates find it harder to land jobs
2 The Straits Times, 3 Apr 2018: 47% of private students find full-time work 6 months after graduation, compared with 78% for public university grads
3 Ministry of Education (Singapore) Parliamentary Replies, 9 Jul 2018: Fresh graduates hired by the public service
4 Today (Singapore), 6 Feb 2018: MOE to study reason for career decisions by polytechnic and ITE graduates