Two years ago, when the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) surveyed 15-year-olds around the world on their degree aspirations, Singapore had, by far, the highest proportion wanting to go to university.
The hankering after a degree is understandable, as research around the world has shown that those with university degrees command a premium in the marketplace.
Another OECD survey released in 2017 revealed that Singapore showed the biggest proportionate jump in wages to go with the rise in the number of years spent on studies among the 34 economies surveyed in the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (Piaac).
Every additional three years of education translates into more than a 30 per cent increase in wages in Singapore. For countries such as the United States, the comparable figure is around 20 per cent, while the OECD average is a wage hike of less than 15 per cent.
Also, the yearly employment survey figures released by the universities here show that their graduates have higher starting salaries than polytechnic graduates, and the gap has widened over the years.
But experts warn that just because past job trends show that graduates have found it easier to land jobs and tended to earn more does not mean that this will be the case in the future.
Increasingly, a degree scroll will not be enough.
Social economists Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton, who wrote the book, The Global Auction: The Broken Promises Of Education, Jobs And Incomes, have argued that the conventional thinking that a degree equals higher earnings does not hold any more.
They say that employees may want to earn higher wages, but companies wanting to maximise profits 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.
This has been made possible 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 workforce. This year, the figure is expected to rise to 200 million. And similar dramatic growth in university enrolment is evident in India.
This means many of the jobs for which a graduate in a developed nation expected to be paid well can simply be routed, much cheaper, to China or India.
The authors also warn of other trends such as Digital Taylorism, brought on by advancement in technologies, including artificial intelligence, which allows white-collar work to be broken down, standardised and computerised such that it can be delivered by lower-skilled but cheaper workers.
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.
So, what is it that individuals in places such as Singapore can do to swim, and not sink, in such an environment? Job experts stress that what all this means is that educational institutions and school leavers seeking further education should focus on building relevant knowledge and skills, not chasing qualifications.
Although this advice is repeated often, it’s not being heeded, says OECD’s education and skills chief Andreas Schleicher.
He says OECD’s survey of adult skills has shown that having university degrees does not equate to higher-level skills.
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The survey – Piaac – has shown that there is an overlap in the skills of high-school graduates and university graduates.
Japanese high-school graduates, for example, have better literacy and numeracy skills than university graduates in many other countries.
Dr Schleicher and other job experts also point out that degrees signal what a student did in the past. They don’t necessarily show what that person can do today.
Much of the knowledge and technical skills acquired through degrees can become obsolete quickly in this fast-changing world.
But the single, most important takeaway from OECD and other analyses is that the knowledge economy no longer pays graduates for what they know.
As Dr Schleicher says: “Google knows everything these days. The knowledge economy pays you for what you can do with what you know. Success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge to novel situations.”
Success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge to novel situations.– Andreas Schleicher
There is, of course, much research and advice being given out on the technical and people skills required to land jobs and thrive in them.
Going by the application rate for university courses such as programming, data analytics and user design experience, school leavers are well versed with the technical skills most sought after by employers.
Not enough attention, though, is being paid to the “soft skills” that many employers are also seeking. Applicants are now required to be adaptable, able to work in multicultural teams and capable of communicating effectively.
These are the skills which will enable an individual to not just land a job in the post-pandemic world, but also thrive in it.
And as the higher education landscape becomes more diversified, experts even suggest looking outside of the four-year degree route to prepare for careers.
Learning is already being done in many different places and many different ways, online and offline (here are “8 Best Mobile Apps For Learning On The Go“).
There are MOOCs (massive open online courses), microcredentials, industry certifications, work-study and apprenticeship programmes and coding schools, like Holberton and 42.
Increasingly, employers will not be looking at just degrees, but also at certifications, badges and various other forms of skills assessment. It’s already happening in some fields, such as computing, with tech companies.
Many also believe that the future lies not with degrees, but with microcredentials – a certification indicating competency in a specific skill.
The advice to school leavers is: “Consider which pathway best suits you and will enable you to develop the right skills to access the career you want.”
And the advice to those heading into the post-pandemic job market: “Even after you land a job, keep learning while earning (read also “7 Reasons Why You Should Never Stop Learning“). That’s the only way to thrive in the uncertain changing world.”
Even after you land a job, keep learning while earning. That’s the only way to thrive in the uncertain changing world.– Andreas Schleicher
So, a degree is, at best, just a stop along the way in your learning journey.
Here are 10 of the most important job skills that are in demand by employers: