Friday, March 5, 2010
Singaporean white collar professionals are going though a rough patch in a changing world economy, having to compete for scarce jobs with a mass influx of ‘cheap foreigners’.
A FORMER lecturer in America with a Master’s in music is reportedly working at a job here that pays only S$2,500 (RM6010) a month.
A retrenched sales executive was rejected for a temporary job as administrative assistant at a government hospital because he was “over-qualified”.
In his account to STOMP, the Straits Times online mobile print, the disappointed applicant said: “I sincerely hope that recruiters and companies (can) understand the pain we are going through...
“We are all out to earn a living and to put food on the table for our family.”
Last year, unemployed scientist Cai Mingjie, who has a PhD from Stanford University and a list of research papers, became a cab driver when he failed repeatedly to land another job. He still cruises the streets of Singapore.
In this land of dream jobs for one million foreigners who have flocked here over the past 10 years, such anecdotes – once considered unusual and rare – are becoming more frequent these days.
White-collar professionals are going through a rough patch certainly.
The wider story is that the changing world economy – aggravated by the mass influx of “cheap foreigners” – is rendering local graduates “over-priced” and “over qualified”.
Economic productivity is in continuous decline, and to survive in this expensive city, higher-educated job seekers are reducing their ambitions to settle for lower-level work.
In a way, Singapore is being penalised for its own success. For years, the government has successfully invested in upgrading its citizens.
Since my early teens, I had been repeatedly reminded that my future depended on getting a degree because it was the key to a successful life.
Some of Singapore’s exuberance faded 10 years ago as globalisation spread, and unemployment among the highly-educated began to rise.
Nevertheless, a varsity education remains a prized asset. In this competitive age, even a hotel receptionist requires one.
Everyone is upgrading. It has long become a national buzzword.
Up to half the Singaporeans who already have a diploma are flocking to the universities to improve themselves.
Some 18,000 Singaporeans are studying in foreign universities. The education budget is one of the highest, and of this, about 30% goes to tertiary studies.
The result has been a rapid rise in the quality of the work force.
Today, two out of three workers have a university degree (27%) or a diploma (39%), and the goal is to push it to 89% by 2020.
If you throw a stone in this city, it will more likely than not hit a graduate.
In the industrial era – especially before the global downturn – Singapore’s professionals were virtually guaranteed a job, often a good one, and this contributed to the state’s prosperity.
Today, the majority remains gainfully employed, making up Singapore’s affluent middle class. But the guarantee is long gone.
With the eclipse of manufacturing, many quality jobs were lost, probably for good, and life is getting harder for the PMET (read Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians).
The phenomenon is, of course, not unique to Singapore. In America, engineers have become hamburger flippers or insurance salesmen.
The PMET plight here is aggravated by the influx of expatriate graduates from abroad hungry for work for less money.
At the same time, Singapore’s productivity growth is in long-term decline, dragged down by the addition of two million foreigners.
The opposition Workers’ Party leader, Low Thia Khiang, said productivity in the past decade was an average 1% a year – down from 5% in the 1980s and 3% in the 1990s.
By allowing easy access to cheap imported labour, the government was partly to blame for the decline, he said.
The authorities have drawn up long-term plans to lift productivity, starting with higher levies on foreign workers and greater retraining help for locals.
For downgraded Singaporeans, the action means little.
They include some 600 graduates who have applied for a licence to drive a taxi, an increase of 23% over 2003.
“What a waste of talent,” said the Chinese daily Lianhe Wanbao, which noticed that graduate-drivers were also becoming younger.
To government backbencher and trade union leader Halimah Yacob, the idea of retrenched degree holders driving taxis is “unavoidable” at times when growth is slow and jobs hard to come by.
Online news site Temasek Review said, in the past, only highly qualified expats and blue collar workers were permitted to work here.
“In the past few years, foreign PMETs have flooded the Singapore labour market, leading to intense competition with locals for jobs” and forcing down earnings.
Under the headline “Graduates dealt harder jobs blow”, The Straits Times, quoting revised official figures, reported: “Despite signs of a turnaround in the job market, university graduates are no better off. In fact, more of them are without jobs and taking longer to land a job.”
To avoid losing out, some youths are leaving out their post-graduate qualifications when they apply for a job, and it often works.
A blogger notes: “Remember that being ‘over-qualified’ won’t make the house payments; rather it can prove to be a roadblock to winning your desired job.”
The general decline is not lost on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Looong.
In a recent speech, he applauded “resilient Singaporeans” who had willingly taken on “any available jobs to support themselves and their families, and keep the unemployment rate down”.