Graduating in the midst of a pandemic: What's next?

The class of 2020 now face a historic recession.
The class of 2020 now face a historic recession.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Meet the class of 2020 - the young people who have stumbled into a recession brought on by a global pandemic.

Forget cancelled graduation ceremonies and trips, they now face a historic recession - the worst since Singapore's Independence in 1965, as a result of Covid-19 derived weakened global demand for goods and services, and the impact of tightened safe distancing measures here.

In fact, there is now talk of a global "lockdown generation", said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in Parliament on Friday (June 5). The youth of this generation "could have their skills, employability and incomes permanently affected, even after the world recovers from the pandemic", he said.

Insight speaks to 30 graduating students across universities and disciplines for this spotlight on them, to get a sense of the challenges they are facing while job hunting in these uncertain times.

Many are worried about the future and whether they can land jobs in the months ahead, while some are relieved they secured jobs earlier either through internships or by a stroke of luck.

Some are trying to remain upbeat by taking online courses to learn new skills, in a bid to stand out in the job market.

In total, 16,000 young people will graduate from the six local universities this year, and another 10,000 will complete their private university degrees. An estimated 5,000 to 8,000 Singaporeans will return from universities abroad.

'I'm worried I can't find a job'

In early April, as Singapore entered circuit breaker mode, final-year National University of Singapore (NUS) political science student Justin Chua was finishing his thesis and searching for jobs.

He was hoping for a private sector job in international relations, but he soon realised he could not be picky. Most of the 25 companies and government agencies he applied to did not reply to him, and for those that did, no job offers came through after video interviews.


Mr Justin Chua, a political science graduate from the National University of Singapore. PHOTO: COURTESY OF JUSTIN CHUA

He has since taken on a contract job for two months as a dormitory support officer at a facility housing healthy foreign workers, while continuing his job hunt. "I see this as a way to try something different and pass time meaningfully," says Mr Chua, 25, who started work at the end of last month. "At least I won't be at home wasting time."

Like him, many graduates say they knew the job search would not be easy, but they did not expect a global pandemic to derail their plans.

Mr Raihan Rafi, 25, a human resources and psychology major from the Singapore Management University, thought he could secure a job in his last semester in school. But he is now worried, after applying to about 40 firms since February and not landing a job yet. "There is so much uncertainty surrounding employment, and it is increasingly difficult to even get a response from employers," he says.


Mr Raihan Rafi, a human resources and psychology major from the Singapore Management University. PHOTO: COURTESY OF RAIHAN RAFI

Similarly, NUS geography major Nediva Divya Singam, 22, who is graduating this year, has sent her resume to 25 companies and government agencies, with no luck.

"I didn't expect it to be so silent. My seniors said companies would take two to three weeks to process documents, but now it takes eight weeks to even hear back from them."

While the universities held virtual career fairs this year, some students say the sessions were not as helpful due to the lack of face-to-face interaction with potential employers.

Graduates who have been trawling job portals also say they do not see many entry-level vacancies, and some think there is little demand for general degrees such as social sciences and business.

The openings offered under the recent SGUnited Traineeships Programme are helpful, they say, although several think they may not have relevant skills needed.

Says Mr Chua: "A lot of the job opportunities I see need tech skills, which we didn't really learn as a social science student, so that's one disadvantage we have."

Overseas postings are also now nearly impossible, graduates such as Nanyang Technological University (NTU) communications major Lo Hoi Ying, 23, point out.

"Prior to the pandemic, I was actively looking for overseas fellowships and jobs, but after countries started restricting tourist arrivals, I knew that I should focus on job searching in Singapore for the next two years at least," she says.

For graduates in badly hit sectors such as hospitality, the job hunt is even harder. A 25-year-old Singapore Institute of Technology final-year hospitality business student who wanted to be known only as Edwin says he had been applying for jobs since January, but stopped when there were so few vacancies.

"If, by August, I don't get a full-time job, I will consider taking on a swabbing contract job to tide me over this period," he says.

Staying resilient

While disappointed with the way their job search is going, these young people are not sitting back and doing nothing.

Some have signed up for online courses offered for free by local universities or education providers such as edX and Coursera, with the hope that broadening their skills will improve their job prospects.

For certain courses, some students pay out of their own pockets, as they do not qualify for the SkillsFuture Credit scheme, which is only for those aged 25 and above.

Ms Sandra Teo, 23, who studied information engineering and media at NTU, is taking courses on digital marketing and product management, for instance. "If, by the end of June, I still can't find a full-time job, I'll start applying for internships and from there, I will ask if I can be converted to full-time staff," says Ms Teo, who has applied for at least 30 jobs since January.

NUS chemical engineering major Harshita Sachdev, 23, who is taking courses on Python, a programming language, hopes that the added skill will make her next round of job applications stronger.

Mr Wayne Lee, 25, who studied material science engineering at NUS, last month completed an online course on mixed reality development sponsored by the Infocomm Media Development Authority. "As long as you're hardworking, you can still get a job some day, but now, I'm focusing on developing myself," he says. "Employers like people with multi-disciplinary skills."


Mr Wayne Lee, who studied material science engineering and is graduating from NUS this year. PHOTO: COURTESY OF WAYNE LEE

But graduates feel this expectation also adds pressure on them.

Says Mr Lee: "There's always this sentiment that what we learn in school is not enough, we need to do more to stand out among our peers, especially during this period."

Still, graduates say they appreciate the help from the Government and universities to create paid job openings - which could last up to a year - even if they are not full time.

Some have applied for traineeships, which they see as a means to tide them over this period of uncertainty and gain some work experience, while earning an income.

Says Ms Singam: "The traineeship is a substantial amount of time to learn something that can be added to our resume, and it gives you a bit of time to think about what career you're suited for."


NUS geography major Nediva Divya Singam is graduating this year. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NEDIVA DIVYA SINGAM

In the long run, graduates still hope to land a full-time job, even if it is unrelated to their studies. They are also willing to lower starting pay expectations.

Says Ms Lo: "I came to terms with myself that the first job I will be getting will not be my dream job, but just something to tide myself over with until the economy stabilises in the next three to five years."

Some graduates have even started their own side businesses for some income. Mr Raihan, who loves cooking, earlier this month started an online home-based business on Instagram selling Asian fusion food. "In this early stage, I'm getting support mainly from my friends and family," he says.

Looking ahead

Labour and human resource experts say new graduates have to remain realistic, as they face a possibly prolonged crisis.

Associate Professor Lawrence Loh from NUS Business School says: "The scenario faced by the current graduating cohort is unusually dismal - never before has the economy deteriorated so drastically in less than even a semester."

The effects of the Covid-19 crisis will be felt for longer, compared with previous recessions, which could be "more or less resolved by economic reforms", he says.

But there are still job opportunities, even if they are limited.

Associate Professor Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences says: "Graduating in a difficult job environment doesn't mean people don't get jobs, but it means that differentiation becomes much more important, with an excess supply of graduates."

Taking up traineeships will help them build more relevant skills and experience, instead of going for contract, part-time, freelance or work in an unrelated field, he adds.

Starting salaries, however, will not be hit that badly, experts say. "Once a wage has been established for a given job, it rarely gets cut in a recession," says Prof Theseira.

CIMB Private Banking economist Song Seng Wun shares the same sentiment and says Singapore has learnt from past recessions and is in a much stronger fiscal position.

"We can't turn around the recession but we can do more to cushion its impact domestically. That's where the Government's help and relief measures come in," he says.

Technology, unlike in previous recessions, is also playing a bigger role in creating new opportunities in employment, he adds.

Meanwhile, experts advise graduates to manage their expectations. Says Mr Song: "Businesses are failing and jobs are being cut, so being able to land a job is a step towards having an income in a very challenging time."

Graduates say the pandemic has made them reflect on their years of education, even as they look towards an uncertain future. Says Mr Chua: "Maybe I was naive to think that the skills required of a person would not change so rapidly, within just four years of university studies. It's never been so real for me as before, the fact that we have to keep learning, if not we will lose out."

• With additional reporting by Jolene Ang, Cheryl Tan and Valerie Tay