Job market imperfections? Live with it!

Mellanie Hewlitt
Singapore Review
12 July 2003

An analysis of Labor Department data by EPI found that in 2002, 18.1 per cent of the long-term unemployed had college degrees, up from 14 per cent in 2000. Similarly, 20.1 per cent were from the executive, professional and managerial category, compared with 14.2 per cent in 2000.

With no viable solutions available from Singapore’s highly paid ministers, the only respite to the current economic gloom is a quick recovery and turn around of the US economy. Otherwise Singapore’s next batch of PHD and MBA scholars will have employment selling char kway teow or flipping burgers in MacDonald’s.

In today’s issue of the Straits Times (see below), Lydia Lim’s article reads; “SLOWLY but surely, reality is sinking in in the psyches of out-of-work”, “NIGHT SHIFT? NO PROBLEM”, “FROM CORPORATE BANKER TO DIAPER CHANGER”.

Reading between the lines, it seems that local papers are endorsing this dismal state and telling readers and Singaporeans to accept and live with this imperfect situation.

The startling fact is that with a worsening economy and soaring unemployment rates, there is an over supply of middle management professionals who are now forced to compete for lower tiered jobs with fresh graduates and non-graduates.

With the current economic situation going from bad to worse, there are already many examples of overqualified professionals who are forced into menial enterprise. Many become cab-drivers or hawkers to tide over the bad times. Did these professionals spend years in university just to be security guards, waiters or cab drivers?

From an economic perspective, education is a scarce resource and there is huge amount of wastage in terms of unutilised skills and talents.

What is even more amusing is the latest attempt by the local papers and mass media, to glorify such cases (see also 12 Jan 2003 issue of the New Paper “From banking man (earning five-digit monthly pay) to Golden Mile nasi lemak man (Why”).

Does the current system work, or is it making an already bad unemployment situation, even worse? Only in Singapore do we have a government that is so engrossed with the accumulation of paper qualifications, that they have long since forgotten the original objective behind the education system, and have instead identified the means as an end to itself.

In their blind pursuit of their version of a utopian society, educational elitism takes center stage above all else, eclipsing the actual needs of the labour market itself. The distortions in the demand and supply chain is most acute in industries that are dominated by State Owned Entities and Government Linked Companies who are also affectionately known by locals as “Scholar Havens”

This growing number of graduates employed in menial labour is not something to be proud of. It is a sign that the system is not putting scarce and valuable resource to good use. What is even more appalling is that instead of acknowledging this defect exists in the system and looking for solutions to address the problem, policy makers and local papers are telling unemployed professionals and graduates to “live with it”.

Unemployed professionals are told that it is “imperative for those out of work to follow the lead of their more enlightened counterparts, who dared to say: Social status be damned, I need a job.” This totally avoids the crux of the problem!

The underlying issue here is that due to the inability of the domestic economy to generate higher echelon jobs, and a very weak employment market, graduates (and Professionals) are often unable to find jobs in positions that they were academically trained for.

This is not a failing on the part of the individual, but rather a failing on the part of the system, and yes, ultimately the government. And a necessary step in addressing this defect is to acknowledge that it exists and needs to be fixed.

But then again, in Singapore it is far easier to change a person’s mindset and expectations, instead of finding an actual solution to a worsening problem. And policy makers here have elected the easier and more convenient route.

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