Degree holders 'most vulnerable' to retrenchment

IT project manager Sylvia Tan, 51, lost her job of 29 years when her business unit was cut earlier this year due to restructuring.
IT project manager Sylvia Tan, 51, lost her job of 29 years when her business unit was cut earlier this year due to restructuring.ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

Experts cite reasons like demand for non-academic skills and restructuring

In the last two years, degree holders here have found themselves the most vulnerable to losing their jobs, among all qualification groups.

Since 2011, their share of residents made redundant was also disproportionately higher than their share of all resident workers.

Experts suggested three reasons for this - jobs lost in restructuring tending to be held by graduates, greater demand for non-academic skills, and substitution by skilled foreign labour.

"As graduates become more available, it brings about more friction in the job-matching process," said SIM University economist Randolph Tan. "Many graduates think that getting a degree is a pinnacle of achievement, but what they don't realise is that the workplace demands much more of them."

Studies by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on retrenchment - the latest of which was released last month - reveal that among Singapore residents, degree holders made up 39 per cent of workers who were laid off last year, but only 34 per cent of employees.

This was a slight improvement from 2012, in which they comprised 45 per cent of laid off workers and only 32 per cent of employees. In 2011, the figures were 33 per cent and 31 per cent respectively.

In the last two years, the gap became the widest among all the five qualification levels analysed by MOM, for the first time since 2008.

IT project manager Sylvia Tan, 51, lost her job of 29 years when her business unit was cut earlier this year due to restructuring.

"If I had been able to pick up new skills like cloud computing and analytics, maybe they would have retained me," the computer science graduate said. "But they probably prefer to pay a younger person with less experience and newer skills."

She found a similar role at a new company within a month, but only because she took a pay cut of 43 per cent.

One of the reasons that graduates are being laid off could be that Singapore is losing its competitive edge in industries with a lot of professionals, managers, executives and technicians - roles which are typically filled by degree holders.

"There are a lot of corporate people who are graduates now," said human resource expert Paul Heng. "When the white-collar jobs are made redundant, graduates are naturally affected."

Another likely cause could be that the workplace now requires new skills which having a degree may not guarantee, such as networking and multilingual abilities, said recruitment firm Robert Walters Singapore's managing director Toby Fowlston.

It may be less clear for graduates where skills upgrading can occur, as there is no next qualification level to hit, added UniSIM's Associate Professor Tan.

"People who are highly trained may need more time for retraining, as they may need to 'unlearn' more things," he said.

A final reason for graduates' straggling could be substitution by mid- to high-skilled foreigners. The tightening of immigration practices for these groups in recent years could have been why the situation eased slightly last year.

"If this is one of the causes, the 'hire Singaporeans first' measures should help in the years to come," said DBS economist Irvin Seah.

Concerns have been raised about an oversupply of fresh graduates. In March, Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin cautioned against a graduate glut which is being seen in South Korea and Taiwan, resulting in "over-educated and underemployed" people.

But some experts say degree holders should be able to keep up with the times.

Mr Mark Hall, vice-president and country manager of recruitment company Kelly Services, said: "Tertiary institutions have also been adding multi-disciplinary programmes, such as pairing engineering with business studies or life sciences to make people more employable."