National Day Rally 2014: Will government agencies really place skills above degrees?

SINGAPORE - At his National Day Rally on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talked about the need for a "culture shift" to persuade young people to consider alternative routes to career success.

They must not be caught up with the idea that a degree is the only path to a fulfilling career, he said. Singapore must always be a place where everyone can feel proud of what they do, and anyone can improve his life if he works hard, he said.

He also talked about the need to shift employment practices and mindsets, including that of the Public Service Division which does the hiring for the government.

This, I think, is crucial for the shift to happen.

I recently wrote about the job search experiences of two young women. They both had adequate, even good, qualifications and as far as I could tell, the necessary skills for the jobs they were aiming for. But they failed to land the promotion or jobs they wanted.

One was a polytechnic diploma holder in early childhood education. She excelled as a pre-school teacher and got yearly pay rises and even won best teacher awards. After four years, she applied for a higher position within the company, and was was told she could not expect to rise further as she did not have a degree.

The other woman had a degree - in English language and literature - from a private school here. Although she graduated with honours and spoke flawless English, she couldn't even secure an interview when she applied for a post-graduate teaching diploma at the National Institute of Education.

Recently, she got accepted into several master's programmes in education overseas, including from the prestigious Columbia University in the United States. She wrote to me complaining that despite all the talk about valuing skills and not exam results, employers in Singapore, including the Government, still look at academic results.

She wished MOE had at least granted her an interview. Then, at least, she could have shown them that she had the right aptitude and skills.

Their experiences point to underlying problems in the way Singapore employers, including the Government, recruit, recognise and reward workers.

In school, students aiming for specific careers pick up skills and knowledge. But once they head to work, their hopes are dashed by employers who tend to still look only at paper credentials.

Even if they are hired, it is common for government agencies and even private sector employers to have different pay scales for graduates, and to vary pay according to the person's degree class.

This needs to change.

Except for professional jobs requiring specific qualifications, like doctors and lawyers, many other jobs these days can be performed equally well by graduates and non-graduates, so they should be open to anyone with the required skills.

Another practice that needs to be reviewed - paying non-graduates less even if they are performing the same job as graduates. Employers should pay and promote based on job scope and performance.

It was heartening to hear PM Lee talk about how paper qualifications aren't everything.

But it is only when more employers - including the Government's own agencies - place skills above credentials will young people be persuaded to invest more in acquiring relevant skills, and not chase after degrees.

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