Skill gap a big problem for fresh grads

Ms Boon posing for a bleak graduation shot that struck a chord with many fellow graduates facing a tough job market.
Ms Boon posing for a bleak graduation shot that struck a chord with many fellow graduates facing a tough job market. PHOTO: ALEX IAN LOH, COURTESY OF ELIZABETH BOON

When she finished her university studies in July, Ms Elizabeth Boon made a splash online with her unorthodox graduation photo shoot.

The National University of Singapore communications graduate, 24, eschewed hat-tossing euphoria in favour of bleak photos styled to match the economic outlook.

In them, she poses listlessly in the Central Business District with a cardboard sign that implores: "Hire me leh."

The controversial photos earned her brickbats online, but also struck a chord with many other fresh graduates leaving the bubble of tertiary education for the sometimes choppy waters of the job market.

Official figures released earlier this month show that job vacancies continue to fall, as the number of job seekers outstrips the number of openings for the first time since June 2012.

The rise in unemployment hit resident degree-holders the hardest. Their unemployment rate rose to 4.3 per cent in June, from 3.5 per cent in the same period last year - the highest level since 2009.

Graduates will find it harder to recoup their investment, as the cost of a degree is likely to go up. Since 2010, tuition fees at local universities have increased every year for most undergraduate courses, largely because of rising operating costs.

Employers are also less keen to hire this year, according to a survey released last week by recruitment firm ManpowerGroup.

Of 646 companies polled in Singapore, nearly three in four said they had no plans to increase headcount during the fourth quarter.

According to Glints, a career development portal for young people, a major problem is the growing skill gap between graduates and the jobs they are applying for.

Says Glints co-founder and chief executive Oswald Yeo: "For example, there's a huge demand for technology workers such as software engineers or digital marketers, but there isn't a big supply of these candidates coming out from universities or polytechnics."

When Glints itself hired an intern who was a marketing major from a local university, he proved ill-equipped to run social media campaigns because he had not been taught how to.

"We had to teach him all over again," says Mr Yeo.

He advises graduates to try to acquire such skills through internships or part-time opportunities.

Otherwise, he says, Singapore could see a growing trend of under-employment, with young job seekers ending up in roles that they are over-qualified for, simply because they lack the specific skills that employers want.

And what of Ms Boon? She has yet to be hired for a permanent position, but she has made her peace with that.

She now freelances as an emcee, writer and actress, raking in $5,000 in a good month but earning less than $1,000 in a bad one.

"There are dry spells when I have to watch my spending," she says.

"If my friends ask me to go out for drinks, I'll join them but I won't drink.

"I'm lucky because I don't have financial commitments for the near future, and my family does not rely on me to support them. But that's not the case for many of us."

For other graduates, freelancing remains a stop-gap measure while they hold out for permanent positions. Nanyang Technological University journalism graduate Kenji Kwok, 25, is making do with wedding and documentary photography while he waits to hear from employers.

He wants to do communications in the civil service and has applied for four positions since April, but his efforts have yet to bear fruit.

"I enjoy photography, but it's not steady," he says. "People don't suddenly decide they're going to get married next month. Demand can be quite up in the air."

He and his girlfriend recently put down a five-figure deposit for a build-to-order flat, which is increasing the pressure on him to secure a steady income.

"I have mixed feelings about the bad news (regarding the economy)," he says. "At least I'm not the only one in this situation, but it also means the competition is stiffer."

Olivia Ho

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline Skill gap a big problem for fresh grads. Subscribe