A tale of a half-desperate soon-to-be graduate

By Val Alvern Cueco Ligo


I wasn’t expecting Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat to spare a thought for people like me and my peers, who face the prospect of getting turfed out of school into the job market at this most excruciating and anxious of times.

After all, the first Budget statement didn’t refer to first-time job seekers, focused as it was on making sure the currently employed stayed employed. That is as it should be. It is less grim not to be able to find your first full-time job, compared to breadwinners who suddenly find themselves without one because of the impact of the coronavirus on their place of employment.

But there was something thrown our way in Mr Heng’s supplementary Budget statement delivered yesterday. He announced a programme to support up to 8,000 traineeship programmes this year. He said that this will include science and technology traineeships in Singapore’s R&D labs, deep-tech startups, accelerators, and incubators.

I hope when the Manpower ministry follows up with the details, it will remember that there are many students out there who will be graduating with certificates that aren’t “techy’’.

I can see, hear and feel the anxiety building up among my peers who will be entering a labour market focused on keeping, rather than creating, more jobs. Some have sent in resume after resume to prospective employers — and most don’t even get so much as a rejection email. Another friend posted about how the position he was applying for suddenly became unavailable because of the Covid-19 outbreak. Others are toying with the idea of a post-graduate internship instead, which at least pretties up their resume and provides for a few months of living allowance.

With the job-hunt getting more and more desperate, I’m wondering whether my peers are still clinging onto the hope of finding a job that fulfills their aspirations, not just their pockets. Or has the growing uncertainty caused some to temporarily abandon their ideals and focus on earning a living wage first.

Some have lamented about being forced into jobs they hate. I mean, who wouldn’t? This is a generation marked by “purpose” and “passion”, now faced with an unexpected reality: one that will make us question, much like the generation before us did, whether “liking” your job is good enough. On this note, would my peers even consider taking the many “non-graduate” jobs out there, including part-time work? In government-speak, that would mean “underemployment”. There are two definitions of “underemployed”. One is internationally recognised as being “time-related”, which refers to when a person is working part-time but is “willing and able to do” additional work. The other definition is when employment does not “make full use of, or pay, according to skills” that a worker could offer. This second one is less common, because it is too subjective. As of 2019, time-related underemployment in Singapore was 3.1 per cent, a number that will undoubtedly shoot up.

I do have some friends, though, who have heard back from companies offering full-time jobs. The surest sign is when they show up nicely-dressed. “Job interview” is the usual answer to sartorial questions. Interestingly, one of them told me that her interview was conducted remotely and when she went to the company for writing tests, the candidates were put in separate rooms. Another had her interview over a phone call, which right now, seems as reasonable an interview method as any. Yet these people are far and few in-between, lucky ones that take on a fabled aura in my conversations with friends. I really only know of four or five people in my batch who have secured a job already.

What about me?

I have adopted a go-with-the-flow, Lao Tzu sort of strategy. If these are the cards that I have been dealt, then I guess I have one less thing to worry about for now. If the job market is this tight, there is little point joining the job hunt. I will focus on other things. Right now, it’s my thesis. Having said that, I am fully aware that this is an option not many people have the luxury to take (Read: I can still depend on my parents). I know of young people whose families need more income to get by. I doubt that they would like a “funemployment” period of doing nothing between school and work.

In my defence, I must say that I work part-time as a server now and have saved enough to get me through a few months without relying on my parents. If I can’t find a full-time job, I can still wait on tables for a living wage. I wouldn’t even mind going full-time, if no other employment prospect beckons.

I can just see people shaking their heads at what they would view as a “waste’’. It isn’t.

In fact, we are beginning to realise just how essential these “lower-skilled” jobs are in maintaining some sort of certainty, familiarity, and thus, security in our lives. Society functions because there are the public transport workers who get us around, the cleaners who sweep our estate to keep it clean, the food delivery drivers who allow you to eat without leaving your safe space, the construction workers who continue to build our homes and offices...

I could go on and on and that would be the point – there are so many things we have taken for granted. While some of us can afford to hunker down and sit tight, there are many who need the work and who do so, risking their health and their families’ health, so that we can, well, hunker down and sit tight.

I understand that someone armed with a degree, after investing so much time and money, will want access to the sort of opportunities that it should open up. But we live in extraordinary times and the structures that people once knew are being shaken.

The best thing we can do is to find a way forward, whether through new hobbies, internships, traineeships and yes, even taking up more menial jobs that might well inject a dose of reality into young people who always thought their path is seamlessly bright.

Doing so might well rid us of this moniker: the Strawberry Generation. We’re not soft nor easily bruised.

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