Why Some Singapore Graduates Can’t Get Jobs


Ryan Ong



Most Singaporean graduates do well. But every few days, I see a tweet or blog post by a local grad complaining about “the system”. It’s usually more predictable than the punch line of an Archie strip: Some rambling diatribe about foreign talent, being underpaid, and local companies not being appreciative. But for every grad who’s unemployed, there are two more with great jobs. So why can’t some grads find work? In this article, I examine the common reasons:


1. Nothing to Back the Degree

Passing exams is easy. Memorize the key points, read past exam papers, etc. Singaporeans have turned it into a meaningless art form.

But while remembering the key points of chapter 3 is easy, a real job isn’t. A main complaint of local employers is that Singaporean grads can’t practically apply their knowledge. They’ve realized that a piece of paper doesn’t guarantee someone’s good at their job. For all they know, you had to strap a tazer to your crotch just to stay awake in Accounting 101*.

*Not a recommended study tactic

These days, a degree in itself won’t convince an employer. To really sell yourself, you need proof of work. Things like volunteering to set up a town council website, or organizing a publicity drive for the SPCA. When two grads go for the same job posting, these extra-curricular activities determine the winner.


“Nope, never seen an actual house fire before. But I have a physics degree, so how different can it be?”


2. Refusal to Compromise on Pay

A degree is magic, right? You get your degree, and your first job should definitely make you $2,500 a month. Because that’s “the national average” for grads. And you shouldn’t accept anything less.

That’s the kind of thinking that, back in 2001, left us with over 20,000 unemployed grads. When you assume you should be paid $2,500 or more, and won’t settle for less, unemployment is the probable outcome. Grads need to realize that every year, degrees get more affordable, and the number of graduates grows. A graduate is no longer special or privileged. And in the current job industry, they are not guaranteed a higher starting pay. 

The grads who can accept that will roll up their sleeves and get to work. The ones who can’t accept it will play a waiting game, and amass debt. Guess who wins in the next three to five years.


Working in Starbucks
“I can brew a latte. I can also brew rocket fuel and refine petroleum, but fine. A latte.”


3. No Soft Skills

Soft skills are work related abilities that aren’t taught. These include initiative, empathy, and a good work ethic. Simply put, it means not being an ass in the office.

A practical example: When working in Food & Beverage (F&B), I kept running into degree holders who couldn’t last a month. They refused to accept colleagues who didn’t speak English, were picky about work hours, and had all the initiative of a dead sloth.

Granted, an office environment is more forgiving than a commercial kitchen. Heck, the ninth layer of Hell is more forgiving than a commercial kitchen. But even in an office, there will be foreign colleagues. There will be work on weekends. There will be a need for initiative. And increasingly, employers are noticing that local grads can’t deal with that.

If you’re a local grad and you can’t hold down a job, maybe take a minute to stop blaming foreigners and the government. Examine your behaviour at your last job: Did you really get along with colleagues? Did you seize the initiative and propose projects? Did you ever have a horrible “not in my job description” mindset?

Get rid of all that, and you might last longer.


Feet on the desk and slacking off
“We’ve run out of paper clips. I can’t do any work.”


4. Following the Crowd

In 2010, our labour force saw an over supply of business grads. This is a cyclical phenomenon: During the 90’s, for example, there was an over supply of IT grads due to the rise of online business. In any era, there’s usually one or two “hot subjects” on the curriculum.

If you have a degree that’s in over supply, then you need to diversify. Pick up skill sets that are relevant or peripheral to your degree. So if you’re in digital art, for example, take a few programming courses to back it up. If you have an English degree, get some English as Second Language (ESL) teaching certs. Anything to distinguish yourself from the horde.

If you haven’t got a degree yet, lose the herd mentality. Study something you’re driven to excel in, not something that everyone else is doing. Why pick a crowded job market, and one where you’re more easily replaced?


Class presentation
“To conclude, I shouldn’t have decided on this course because it had the longest registration line.”


Image Credits:
Patrick Axelsson, ZeroOneemilio labrador, cell105, preetamrai, Octopus Hat

Are you a graduate who can’t get a job? Comment and let us know why!

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Ryan Ong

I was a freelance writer for over a decade, and covered topics from music to super-contagious foot diseases. I took this job because I believe financial news should be accessible and fun to read. Also, because the assignments don't involve shouting teenagers and debilitating plagues.

  • James Watdapak

    dont be to picky on work…

  • James Watdapak

    if you dont like the work then go abroad