The Straits Times-SkillsFuture Singapore: Future of Skills

Degree holders face global competition in hunt for jobs

Professor Phillip Brown's career took him to Cambridge University and the University of Kent at Canterbury before he joined Cardiff University.
Professor Phillip Brown's career took him to Cambridge University and the University of Kent at Canterbury before he joined Cardiff University.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Social economist Phillip Brown cites trends affecting job market

In many developed societies, including Singapore, young people and their parents hold strongly to the belief that a degree will lead to better job prospects and subsequently afford them a comfortable life.

Social economist Phillip Brown, who co-authored the book The Global Auction: The Broken Promises Of Education, Jobs, And Incomes in 2011, challenges this conventional wisdom.

The distinguished research professor from Cardiff University in the United Kingdom argues that increasingly, graduates in many countries will not just compete for graduate-level jobs within their country, but with university graduates from many other countries who are willing to accept more modest wages.

This competition for jobs is fuelled by several global trends, including an explosion of higher education across the world.

Q What exactly is the global auction for talent and is it still happening?

A Central to the global auction thesis is the view that the competition for jobs has shifted, from one largely restricted within clearly defined national boundaries to a global auction open to competition across borders.

While this has created new employment opportunities, many university graduates in developed economies, including Britain and the United States, are confronted with a reverse or Dutch auction in which they are competing with much cheaper graduates in countries like India and China.


The global auction is driven by several trends, including the massification of higher education. There is an explosion in the supply of university-educated workers in both affluent and emerging economies.


This global auction, if anything, has intensified in recent years - the economic uncertainty is one of the factors underpinning Brexit and Mr Donald Trump's election.

It is driven by several trends, including the massification of higher education. There is an explosion in the supply of university-educated workers in both affluent and emerging economies. Take China, for example. In 2010, there were about 100 million graduates in the Chinese workforce. By 2020, this figure is expected to rise to 200 million. And similar dramatic growth in university enrolment is evident in India.

So there is more congestion and intense competition in the job market. There is also intense competition in education - where you have students trying to outdo each other to gain an advantage.

The other trend to watch is companies now having the capacity to integrate webs of high-skilled labour across global operations. They now cast a wider net for the cheapest workers with the skills they need, turning the contest for graduate-level jobs into a "global auction".

While employees want to increase the value of their labour and earn higher wages, companies want to maximise profits and aim to lower their labour costs. So they will go where they can find workers with the skills they need, but who are prepared to accept more modest wages.

Q What other trends are driving this?

A Another trend we talk about is Digital Taylorism - where white collar work is being broken down into elements.

Taylorism refers to the large-scale, assembly-line manufacturing principles laid down by US industrial engineer Frederick Taylor. Digital Taylorism occurs when white-collar work is broken down, standardised and computerised such that it can be delivered by lower-skilled but cheaper workers. New technologies have increased the potential to translate knowledge work into working knowledge, leading to the standardisation of an increasing proportion of technical, managerial and professional jobs.

Analysing X-rays, drawing up legal contracts and processing tax returns are examples of jobs that have been hit by this trend.

Even bank jobs are not protected. There are already "financial services factories", as banks and insurance companies continue to break down tasks into a series of procedures that can be digitalised.

Q With such a challenging graduate job market, should Singapore be increasing its university cohort participation rate to 40 per cent?

A Many developed economies have similar cohort participation rates, and so far the Singapore economy has performed well enough to provide enough jobs for its graduates.

And a country with a wealthy economy and society should give its people access to further education opportunities.

The problem is Singapore's success so far has heightened expectations of what an education can deliver in terms of income and the good life. And that may not be easy for the Government to deliver.

Q So, how should the Singapore Government respond to help guard its graduates against the global auction for talent?

A Beginning with low-skilled jobs in manufacturing, Singapore has now established itself as a major location for research, financial services and high-end manufacturing. It is tempting to conclude that as long as Singapore continues to invest in education and employability skills, this process of workforce upgrading will continue to deliver rising prosperity and a competitive economy.

Singapore has few options but to focus on its human resources, and to continue to pursue the broad strategy of raising the demand and supply of skills.

The central question is how best this can be achieved in the light of the global auction.

Among the issues that Singapore needs to look at is how it nurtures and distributes talent, and further on, if hit by significant unemployment or underemployment, all developed economies, including Singapore, will have to think about how we are going to find new ways of sharing the rewards of employment and the benefits of economic activity.

Singapore needs to nurture local talent that multinational companies will find attractive and will help anchor their presence here.

The Government should also nurture the local small and medium-sized enterprises. This will grant Singapore a degree of economic autonomy within a context of MNCs constantly seeking to cut costs through relocation.

Singapore is already making advances on several of these fronts, including growing its indigenous companies. The SkillsFuture movement is also a major step in the right direction as it aims to provide Singaporeans with opportunities to develop to their fullest potential.

Q What is it that individuals can do to thrive in such an environment where there is worldwide competition for graduate jobs?

A Whatever further education paths one takes, follow your passion but also ask the hard questions. Think about why you want a degree and if pursuing one will help you land the job you want.

I would also advise young people not to think of university education as simply a meal ticket, but an opportunity for them to study the things that they find exciting.

They should seek a broad-based education, get out of the comfort zone and open themselves to completely different opportunities as far as possible to expose themselves to new things.

This way, they will not just end up with expertise in a particular area but also with the other skills that are important to have an edge and thrive in an uncertain environment - and also to lead a meaningful, purposeful life.

From factory worker to research professor

Professor Phillip Brown, 61, a British sociologist focusing on education, economy and social change, is Distinguished Research Professor in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University in Wales.

He started his working life as an apprentice at the British Leyland car factory in Oxford after leaving school with just one O level, in metalwork. After a few years of working in a factory, he went to retake his O levels, then the As, which got him interested in going on to university to study sociology.

His PhD thesis dealt with social class, education and the transition to employment.

His academic career took him to Cambridge University and the University of Kent at Canterbury before he joined Cardiff University in 1997.

He is a visiting professor at the University of British Columbia; Sciences Po in Paris; Zhengzhou University in China and the Institute for Adult Learning in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2018, with the headline 'Degree holders face global competition in hunt for jobs'. Print Edition | Subscribe