Tuesday, 2 September 2014

No degree, no problem

Culture shift a matter of degrees
A university degree carries more weight in the workplace than any other academic qualification but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wants this to change. In his National Day Rally speech he signalled a paradigm shift in how Singapore regards qualifications, urging that skills and experience be equally valued. The change comes amid a burgeoning number of ITE and polytechnic students seeking higher education. Insight looks at three obstacles that must be overcome before the cultural change can take place

OBSTACLE 1: The glass ceiling for non-grads
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 30 Aug 2014

NO DEGREE, no problem.

Try telling that to corporate communications manager Vivien Tan.

The 39-year-old had thought along those lines 23 years ago when, after her O levels, she chose to go to a polytechnic instead of a junior college and university like most of her classmates did, despite her 11-point aggregate.

Her lack of a degree would later prove a disadvantage at various times over the past 18 years working in both the public and private sectors, when she was denied opportunities because she was not a graduate.

"There were limited opportunities given to non-degree holders to lead projects or take on leadership positions. Even though I was ready for new challenges and opportunities to showcase my leadership qualities, I wasn't able to do so," she tells Insight of the obstacles she faced.

The numbers bear out this unequal treatment. In the public sector, where Ms Tan worked as a corporate communications officer from 2006 to 2011, a diploma holder typically starts at a monthly pay of $1,800, while a degree holder can get $3,200.

A report of average starting salaries by global recruitment firm Hay Group found that graduates get paid up to 46 per cent more than diploma holders in Singapore.

These statistics, and the experience of Ms Tan and many others like her, make the Government's message - that people can also succeed without a degree - a hard sell for now.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat acknowledged just as much, when he said during a press conference to announce the Government's push to improve opportunities for ITE (Institute of Technical Education) and polytechnic graduates, that changing mindsets would take time.

Observers say for the message to get through, the glass ceiling for non-graduates must be shattered.

And here, Ms Tan's experience could be instructive. She says of her five years in the public service: "Although I've always received good performance appraisals from my bosses, they felt they could not justify giving me a promotion as I am only a diploma holder."

The Public Service Division says there is no official glass ceiling for non-graduates - they can technically get promoted as long as they do well. Yet, in recent times, few, if any, have made it to the top echelons of a statutory board or ministry.

The announcement on Tuesday that the public service would promote non-graduates more quickly under its management support scheme for diploma holders, and also work towards merging the graduate and non-graduate career tracks, goes some way to changing that. As Singapore's largest employer, its efforts could pave the way for more widespread change among employers.

But even among individuals, the belief that academic success in school leads to success in life is deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of Singaporeans, and is also borne out from experience.

National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Paulin Straughan says there are cultural and historical roots to this.

In Asian societies such as Singapore, a deep respect for formal education and the valorisation of the "scholar" have spurred people on a paper chase.

As Singapore progressed quickly from a developing to a developed nation, the importance of getting an education was entrenched. "We went to school and it opened many doors for us; we enjoyed upward mobility. You could see the immediate, tangible returns to a formal education, and that kind of trajectory became entrenched in our DNA," Prof Straughan says.

Employers, too, contribute to this by giving preference to graduates in recruitment, promotions and remuneration, even in roles for which academic ability may not be key.

When companies in Singapore hire for their management trainee programmes that are meant to groom future leaders, they lean towards those who have gone to university, numbers from a Hay Group 2014 survey show.

And once hired as management trainees, those with degrees were paid 58 per cent more than their counterparts with diplomas, a separate Hay Group survey of 130 organisations here last year found.

For years, organisations in the public and private sectors have used qualifications as a convenient proxy to evaluate a job applicant. Mr Richard Yeo, director for rewards, talent and communication at human resources and pay consultancy Towers Watson, notes: "It boils down to whether a company has the ability to differentiate between competencies based on job and career levels. Some companies do not, so they use qualifications as the entry point."

Add to this a tight labour market, and you have a wage structure that further encourages the paper chase.

Singapore Management University (SMU) professor and vice-president of business development and external relations Annie Koh feels still more can be done to make the pay structure between graduates and non-graduates more equal.

Referring to the disparity in graduate and diploma pay in the Hay report, she says: "If people have invested in a degree, the implication is they have already used up some of their funds, so they need to be rewarded higher.

"But 46 per cent more at the start seems to be fairly high. And by having two different career tracks, you continue to perpetuate this disadvantage for life."

With Singaporeans being a pragmatic lot, changing these reward structures represents the best bet at convincing people that a degree is not the only route to success.

"Students value what the market values because wages are tied to what the market rewards. If employers were to value the other things and reward those things, then students and parents might adjust their strategies," says NUS sociologist Vincent Chua.

For some who have had it drummed into them that to go further in life requires going further in school, the call for a cultural change is somewhat jarring.

But SIM Global Education's Dr Timothy Chan says it is a "reality check".

The director of academic division at the private institution says: "There is a very strong desire and aspiration for ITE and polytechnic graduates to further their studies on a personal level. However, not everybody actually benefits the same way from education."

Another factor in the degree equation is that education fever has heated up over the years. Singapore added her fifth and sixth universities, with the Singapore Institute of Technology and SIM University (UniSIM), to cater to increasing demand for university places. The other four universities are the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University and Singapore University of Technology and Design.

But today, the Government is wary of going down the road which some other countries have gone. In South Korea and Taiwan, for example, the heedless paper chase has led to a glut of graduates who end up either unemployed or underemployed.

As it is, many here see a degree as a ticket to a good life, and hanker after one.

This year, five of the six universities, excluding UniSIM which is a private university, drew 37,500 applications from A-level holders and 29,000 applications from polytechnic graduates. Even with each student, on average, applying to two different universities, this far exceeds the 14,000 university spaces available.

Now, the Government wants some of these polytechnic graduates to reconsider their choice - by providing different routes to the top for them and those from ITE too - so they will enter the workforce with just the diploma in hand. They will get more training on the job, which will go towards their progress up the career ladder.

It is not that a degree is useless, but that not all jobs require one, and that not everyone has to get one so early in life.

Ideally, this push will lead people to reflect on why they want a degree, says SIM Global Education's Dr Chan.

SMU's Prof Koh reckons it will take two or three generations for the culture to change, adding that Singapore will be a "leading light" when it happens.

For Ms Tan, who is still without a degree but now has a better-paying job in the private sector, it will also mean that her two daughters, aged 12 and 14, can follow in her footsteps without worry. Despite her own experiences, she is not one to harangue them to get a degree.

"I think it's more important to see where their potential lies and to nurture that talent. Whether they eventually get a degree is not important.

"What is most important is whether they are able to study a course that they are passionate about, which allows them to do what they enjoy when they graduate," she says.

OBSTACLE 2: 'Frontloading' education before joining workforce
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 30 Aug 2014

LEARN-AS-YOU-WORK programmes are all well and good to boost employability, but it is an uphill task to alter people's entrenched mindset of "frontloading" education in order to get them to join the workforce earlier.

The successful polytechnic or Institute of Technical Education graduate who has held off getting a degree is still a rarity, going by the young people and bosses Insight spoke to.

Some responsibility for this lies with employers' human resource practices, which do not reflect a belief that there are purported rewards to be reaped from well-trained workers later. For their part, students say they need proof that workplace training eventually gets them better-paying jobs.

Take student Lim Rui Shan, doing a diploma course in chemical engineering at Temasek Polytechnic. The 22-year-old failed her A levels and spent a year working and studying to be an accountant before scrapping that and resuming full-time studies. She plans to get a degree from a public university here after obtaining her diploma, and then work in the petrochemical sector.

She is sticking to this even after learning that leading petrochem companies fully sponsor degree courses for diploma-holding technicians who have done well and that the qualification could lead to an engineer position.

Ms Lim attended a Jurong Island Open Day earlier this month, and says: "The presenter had obtained his part-time degree, and when I asked if he was going to be promoted to an engineer next, he said 'no', because he has to compete with degree holders, and engineer positions seldom open up. He said people in the industry know that it's a part-time degree just by looking at the course name."

Until diploma holders in the job market can achieve wages approaching parity with degree holders, this will continue to be the case, she maintains. "Right now, the job market is just friendlier to people with degrees."

Hers is not an atypical path: Ministry of Education statistics show that while 20 per cent of each polytechnic cohort secure a place at one of the six local universities, a larger number (24.5 per cent) go on to obtain a degree qualification elsewhere.

With nearly half the polytechnic cohort pursuing degrees, it seems the ASPIRE committee has its work cut out in urging young people to treat education as a lifelong marathon rather than a 20-year sprint in their youth. This is despite the irrefutable logic behind the new push: You risk job obsolescence from technological and global economic shifts.

But as the likes of Ms Lim highlight, a big question is: Will employers come on board in providing wage parity once young people have completed continuing education programmes?

Indeed, Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah said during the press conference announcing the Government's acceptance of ASPIRE's recommendations: "We need employers and companies to come in, (as) support from them is important.

"Employers must have the right mindset, and our system must be able to support this."

However, the Government has levers it can pull beyond simple exhortations. Companies here say they have become more open to place-and-train and other upskilling schemes since the foreign worker dependency ratio was tightened in 2012, while training allowances to offset workers' lower productivity during training helped seal the deal.

Mr Richard Leo, managing director of freight-moving company Astro Express Logistics, says: "The labour market became very tight because of the cap on foreign workers. The Government is helping us in terms of value-add, and it's helping us to retain staff and train them."

Three of his employees - all fresh polytechnic and ITE graduates on a place-and-train programme, which they joined a year ago - are still with the firm, no small feat in a sector where workers typically leave after about six months. They were matched up by the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), which has helped some 5,000 Singaporeans gain employment across 50 job types since 2011. Its place-and-train programme was started in 2008.

But beyond what can be seen as beefed-up induction and immersion programmes for fresh hires, employees themselves can be resistant to upgrading, especially when it requires a huge time and monetary commitment.

Using the same workers as an example, Mr Leo says he had encouraged two to take up a degree scholarship offered by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. But even with his support, they were both hesitant to take up "an offer that's too good to refuse", he says.

A big reason for this is the stamina needed to work and study at the same time. A part-time course means they would take three to five years to get their degrees. Other perceived "strings" include a one-year bond and co-payment by the employee himself.

"We can't afford to have them studying full-time because we need bodies to run the business," says Mr Leo, of his 20-man firm. "What holds them back is the commitment; working and studying is quite daunting."

Experts like SIM Global Education's academic division director, Mr Timothy Chan, says all parties in the equation need to adjust their mindset and be willing to sacrifice short-term productivity for long-term gains.

"We need to be more innovative in approaching training, (and) try to fully integrate the training programmes with work," he says.

OBSTACLE 3: Putting white-collar workers on a pedestal
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 30 Aug 2014

FOR the longest time, white-collar workers have been held in high regard in the workplace.

They are paid more handsomely than their blue-collar counterparts, for a start.

"There is the perception that white collar is better than blue collar, and if you work in the office you're better than someone who doesn't work in the office," said National University of Singapore sociologist Pauline Straughan, of the hierarchies that exist in the working world.

If the Government is to convince Singaporeans that all jobs should be respected, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the National Day Rally, then these notions must change.

As it is, salaries perpetuate this distinction, with blue-collar workers being paid less.

Among blue-collar occupations at the higher end, the median monthly gross wage for craftsmen and related trades workers is $2,377, and that for plant and machine operators is $2,015, says the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) 2011 Report On Wages In Singapore, the latest available. In comparison, white-collar workers at the higher end such as managers get $6,630 and professionals, $4,632.

Reliance on foreign labour to fill blue-collar jobs feeds into the distinctions.

With foreign workers in Singapore for only a short stint, and coming from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds, they are more likely to tolerate the harder conditions of such jobs, said Dr Straughan.

"This feeds the misperception that the jobs are obviously less important, and reinforces the stereotypical hierarchy, and no young Singaporean would want to train for a job which is not valued," she said.

Singapore Management University professor Annie Koh said the current economic restructuring could bring a change. With foreign worker quota cuts, employers will have to try to improve conditions to attract Singaporeans to fill such positions.

But she added: "People will always look at pay as an indicator of success."

The perceptions about non-office jobs are strong enough that, even when wages are decent and prospects good, job applicants may not bite. Companies in the Stem - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - sectors, which are among the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, find it tough to attract ITE and polytechnic graduates for technical positions.

In the aerospace industry, which is part of the sector, ITE graduates start at a median gross monthly salary of $1,925, while polytechnic graduates start at $2,200 to $2,500, the MOM's 2013 publication on graduates' starting salary shows.

Observers note that current pay structures and hierarchies do not accurately reflect the needs of the market. "The assumption is if you pay someone less and they are in a less prestigious job, they are less useful and their job is less important. But increasingly, we know this is not true," said Dr Straughan.

Indeed, there is a looming skills shortage worldwide.

Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah noted this, in announcing the recommendations of the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) committee, which she chaired. "There is a need for real skills. The employers tell us this, OECD reports point this out and our study trips abroad confirm this," she said.

This has led to countries trying to emulate Germany's apprenticeship model, which puts students on a vocational track after high school where they are trained by companies on the job, and often offered a position at the end. ASPIRE's place-and-train programmes are modelled on it.

In the end, though, market forces may provide the extra nudge needed to change perceptions about blue-collar and white-collar jobs.

After all, "You can have engineers doing the planning and design, but you will still need those workers who are willing to work outdoors under the hot sun translating the design into reality", said Dr Straughan.


Poly, uni grads' pay gap closing faster
Firms raising salaries of non-grad hires due to tight labour market
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 30 Aug 2014

GRADUATES will continue to command a salary premium but a tight labour market is making employers raise the pay and job prospects of their non-graduate hires.

Employers and human resource experts say the time taken for a top diploma hire to close the pay gap with his graduate counterpart has shortened significantly.

Fresh poly graduates are typically paid around $500 less a month compared with new university graduates. A degree holder earns about $2,600 a month while a diploma holder draws about $2,100.

But after about two years on the job, top performing diploma holders can see their pay rise to match their graduate colleagues' salaries at the same level. Up until about five years ago, poly graduates had to work for about four years before their salaries caught up with those of graduates.

"If you don't pay better, you won't be able to find people to do the job," said Mr David Ang, a director at training and consultancy provider Human Capital Singapore.

Some companies, however, continue to have two separate career tracks for graduates and non-graduates but human resource experts are hoping this will change after the latest push by the Government to get firms to recognise skills instead of paper qualifications.

On Monday, the Education Ministry announced that it was working with schools and firms to provide structured on-the-job training for polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) graduates to help them progress in their careers.

In fact, many firms simply do not have enough manpower, a situation exacerbated by foreign manpower curbs, said Mr David Leong, managing director of recruitment firm PeopleWorldwide.

"Being a graduate or non-graduate is not important. If you are local, bosses won't mind hiring you," Mr Leong said.

The graduate and non-graduate divide is narrowing even more rapidly in sectors such as manufacturing, aerospace and construction which cannot attract enough university graduates, said human resource experts.

Firms in these industries have opened up engineering jobs - which were traditionally for degree holders - to diploma holders with the relevant experience, said Human Capital's Mr Ang.

Mr Tay Cheng Hoo, human resource director of German electronics firm Rohde & Schwarz, agrees.

"I just can't find enough engineers. Rather than simply paper qualifications, it is more useful to look at experience and skills," he said.

Mr Tay hopes to hire about 40 diploma and degree holders to work as engineers this year.

Similarly, at Singapore Power (SP), fresh diploma holders start at lower salaries than their graduate colleagues.

But they can progress to the engineering track, which is offered to graduates, if "they display the ability and aptitude for the job", said a company spokesman.

SP pays fresh diploma holders annual salaries of $40,000 compared with their graduate colleagues who earn about $58,000.

Still, many polytechnic graduates prefer to go for a degree first rather than working to gain experience.

Mr Tong Yek Meng, the learning and development manager of logistics company YCH Group, said: "Most of our poly interns say they want to go to university . They think a degree is necessary to get a good job.

"If this mindset doesn't change, it will be hard for employers to attract diploma holders."

Degree holders 'have an edge from the get-go'
Non-grads say they lose out even with similar job responsibilities
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 30 Aug 2014

EVEN as employers and human resource experts paint a more positive picture, non-graduates themselves are not fully convinced.

They say their work prospects are dimmer than those of their peers who hold degrees, even when they have similar job responsibilities.

Non-graduates say employers, especially the civil service, tend to favour degree holders with higher starting salaries, speedier promotions and more opportunities.

This may soon change.

The Public Service Division said on Tuesday that non-degree holders will soon have better career progression in terms of faster promotions and higher pay.

It is also looking at how to merge graduate and non-graduate schemes to give all officers a chance to progress based on their performance and potential.

Non-graduates say they now lose out to graduates right from the start.

A 26-year-old polytechnic graduate who worked at an airline for five years said: "Degree holders were my bosses. They had titles like supervisor and team leader, even though some came in later and were younger than me.

"They had a lot more attention to build up their career, like overseas postings and job rotations."

She went for a part-time degree course by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology offered via the Singapore Institute of Management, hoping she could cross over to the graduate track.

"Even after that, it was still so difficult to transfer. I was asked what my grade point average was and whether my degree had honours," she said.

She quit this year and joined an American firm as a business analyst. "It's much better, I'm earning more and they're not so hung up on certificates," she said.

A 25-year-old aerospace avionics polytechnic graduate left the civil service this year for a bank after he saw how promotions were hard to come by.

"Fresh degree holders come in three ranks higher than us, and the highest rank a poly graduate can reach is usually still lower than a degree holder," he said, adding that it would take at least eight years to attain that level.

"You have to put in more effort to be recognised."

Another polytechnic graduate working in a ministry said: "Those with degrees do the same job as we do. But I'm an executive, and they come in straight as manager or assistant manager."

The 25-year-old is starting a part-time Murdoch University degree course offered by Kaplan next month as she felt pressured to get a degree to level up.

A non-graduate former secondary school art teacher said she was promoted once in three years, but degree holders got "almost automatic promotion" every year.

"The school said it would fully support me if I wanted to get a degree so that I could have better prospects," said the 26-year-old.

The distinction between non-graduates and graduates seems less evident outside the civil service, employees said.

Mr Patrick Chan, 37, who holds a fine arts diploma from Lasalle College of the Arts, said he did not feel disadvantaged in his last 10 years of working experience. He was a project manager in a design firm for four years before taking up his current marketing executive position in a Dutch multinational company. These two companies, he said, focused more on skills than on credentials.

"I had applied to government agencies and private firms but the response wasn't great," he said. "It's fairer if everyone is assessed based on abilities, but non-graduates may still have to work harder to prove their worth."

S’pore needs more grads to stay ahead: NTU president
To achieve lifelong learning, it is insufficient to focus only on specialised training, he says
By Siau Ming En, TODAY, 30 Aug 2014

Amid the spirited public discussion about the value of a degree and the need for a greater emphasis on applied and technical education, Nanyang Technological University president Bertil Andersson put up a robust case for Singapore needing more graduates — among other things, so as to not end up as a “second-rate country” — and pointed out that there is a false dichotomy between specialised training and pursuing a degree.

The real problem is how people here tend to follow a fixed path in getting an education, he said yesterday in an interview with TODAY.

“Most Singaporeans, young people, want to take (a degree course) as fast as possible and then they want a job,” Prof Andersson said, offering his take on the Singapore-style paper chase. It is important that the door remains open for individuals to enter university long after they have started work, he added.

He noted that in Sweden and the United Kingdom, for example, about 40 per cent of each cohort are degree holders. In comparison, about 30 per cent of each cohort here go on to study at local universities. “That is low (by) international standards.”

The Government has set a target of providing places at publicly funded universities for 40 per cent of each school cohort by 2020.

Prof Andersson added: “Singapore is a country that is connected to all other countries in the world — we trade with them, we interact with them … So, Singaporeans cannot be lower-educated than people in America and England. If not, you will become a second-rate country instead of a First World country.”

During the National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made clear that a cultural shift in the way Singapore values its people is needed for the future. He said the paper chase is not the only route to a bright future — another pathway lies in getting a good job, mastering deep skills, performing well and gaining relevant qualifications to advance a career.

On Thursday, Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam noted that the failure to focus on applied and technical education is the reason countries, even those with successful economies, are grappling with the problem of underemployment. “The most modern and advanced societies — you can look at Switzerland ... Germany — require large numbers of people with technical skills in services, manufacturing and logistics,” he added.

Weighing in on the issue, Prof Andersson said to achieve lifelong learning, it is insufficient to focus only on specialised training.

“My view is that specialised education, at least a higher level of specialised training, must become more academic — it’s not either or; it’s both,” he said.

Citing the example of an engineer’s future, Prof Andersson said his role was not to work in front of machines. Rather, he should be the one programming robots or machines to do the work — something that requires academic training from studying for a degree.

“The problem is what Prime Minister Lee called the ‘paper chase’ — it’s so streamlined,” he added.

In contrast, students in Sweden sometimes take a break or work before entering university.

Even without top grades, universities in Sweden will also consider applicants’ work experience for their admission, noted Prof Andersson, who is a Swede. He acknowledged that Swedish students are able to spend a longer time deciding what they want to do since university education is free.

However, Singapore can work around that and offer more flexibility in the system. For instance, he said universities could change the way they evaluate the admission criteria for undergraduates and make it easier for applicants to enter university at any age.

When asked whether NTU would lead the way in changing admission criteria, he noted that he would be happy to do it, while acknowledging the rules and regulations governing university admissions and discussions that would be needed with the Education Ministry.

The streamlined education pathways are also why Prof Andersson noted that there are “much too few” Singaporeans taking their master’s degrees and PhDs. “That is a reason we have so many foreign professors, because there are few Singaporeans, young people going into an academic career,” he said.

He added that support systems need to be created to make it attractive for young Singaporeans to pursue postgraduate studies.

His advice to students? Take time to deliberate study choices. “Be ambitious, but don’t rush,” he said.

Getting that degree: 'It's never your last chance'
Debate on skills or paper isn't either-or; it's about choosing relevant qualifications
By Chua Mui Hoong Opinion Editor, The Sunday Times, 31 Aug 2014

Years ago, my mother used to nag her three children, saying: "If you don't study hard, you'll end up a road sweeper."

Sometimes, one of us would retort cheekily: "If everyone thinks like you, who will sweep the roads in Singapore?"

I don't mind swimming or cycling in the sun, but not sweeping floors. I studied hard.

My late parents were uneducated, ordinary folk from China who came to Singapore decades ago in search of a better life. They believed that their hard work was so that their children could go to school, study hard, and work in an office - not toil in the sun as their peasant forebears did.

At the heart of my mother's simple axiom - study hard or sweep floors - is a simple world view that splits the world into two groups: that of the thinker-scholar-manager and the worker-doer-sweeper.

It springs from centuries of Chinese civilisation. Ancient Chinese society is often described as falling into four classes: the shi (the scholar or administrative class, which had roots in warrior orders), the nong (farmers), the gong (artisans and craftsmen) and the shang (merchants).

When my mother nagged us to study, she was articulating her aspiration for her children to move from the nong to the shi class, not slide down to the gong.

In those words reside centuries of Chinese parental expectation. I suspect it does not differ much today.

It will thus be no easy task for the ASPIRE committee and the Government to try to reprogramme the Singapore population and get people to believe that one does not need a university degree to succeed in Singapore, and that those who embark on the gong (artisanal) path stand as good a chance as the shi (scholar) to succeed.

ASPIRE stands for Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review, and is a committee tasked to look at "how to strengthen the applied education pathway" in polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), to ensure that graduates from these institutes have "good career and academic progression prospects".

ASPIRE released its report last Monday. One of its recommendations is to strengthen work-study programmes, so polytechnic and ITE graduates can continue to upgrade their skills after they start work.

At his National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also called for a "cultural change" in values. His message to young people: "Do not go on a paper chase for qualifications or degrees, especially if they are not relevant, because pathways and opportunities to upgrade and to get better qualifications will remain open throughout your career.

"It is never the last chance.

"You always have the possibility to advance, to improve yourself, to take another step as long as you are working, as long as your mind remains fresh and active and you dare to go."

Since then, public discussion on the issue has been heated. Some wonder if a degree is now useless. Others wonder if the "cultural change" is meant to reduce demand for university places from young Singaporeans, for fear the economy will not be able to offer them good-enough jobs.

I think the message is a different one. A degree is useful. In fact, it is going to be more, not less so, as more young people start off working life with one.

Rather, the message is: Don't rush straight from school to a degree. Don't get just any degree. Don't bankrupt yourself or your parents to get a degree from overseas. Take time to work, discover your true skill and passion, and climb the ladder of work mastery. There will be chances along the way to get a degree if you want it.

The PM's words bear repeating: "There is never a last chance."

This, to me, is a crucial message. The doors are not closing. There is never a last chance for that paper.

At the heart of the cultural change that the PM is calling for is a "continuous meritocracy", in the words of Deputy PM Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who used the term at a university student forum in September 2012.

Singapore can't be an "exam meritocracy", where career prospects depend on how well one did in final-year exams at age 22.

It has to be a society where merit is constantly tested, and proven, and rewarded, and improved upon, in the workplace, over and over again.

To do this requires us as a society to rethink our world views, and stop using pure academic qualifications as the criteria for so many things: to get into educational institutions; to get into training programmes; to slot people into different career schemes at work; and even to sign up for match-making programmes.

Paper qualifications may influence starting pay, but should not restrict a person's progression for the rest of his career.

Entry to training and skills courses especially can't be closed off to those who failed school exams. Otherwise, we condemn large numbers of people to low-skill, low-pay jobs for life, and never make use of their full potential.

It's quite clear from the PM's Rally speech that he's not saying a degree is of less value. The people he cited in his speech, who did well in their careers without degrees, were people who continued to learn and get qualified while on the job.

One started with a poly diploma and went on to complete an executive master's degree in business administration from the Singapore Management University. Another, who went to ITE, is pursuing a part-time polytechnic diploma. One man who dropped out of Secondary 2, went on to get a National Technical Certificate-3, awarded by ITE.

When The Straits Times published on its front page stories of two people who had succeeded without degrees, it was a similar story: a diploma-holder who worked as a sommelier for a few years and then got a degree; and a technician with a diploma now taking night classes towards - yes, a degree.

Persuading young people to work first, then pursue advanced qualifications in their chosen field, requires a huge change in the workplace. It needs employers who are fully engaged in helping workers get those higher-level skills and qualifications. The ASPIRE report made a start, but it will require many more committees and much more reorganising to get things moving.

Employers are as critical in this cultural change as parents and students.

Workers will believe there's never a last chance for a degree if employers are able to say: Come work for me and you will have chances to progress in skills, in paper qualifications, and in pay.

Non-grads and their place in talent narrative
By Han Fook Kwang, Editor At Large, The Sunday Times, 31 Aug 2014

Singapore is changing.

You have heard this line many times by now, so what's new?

Well, here's one more to add to the fast-changing story line: You don't need a university degree to succeed.

Good luck to that one! You can almost hear the cynics saying.

It will be a tough sell even after the Prime Minister devoted a large part of his National Day Rally to the issue, recounting several examples of Singaporeans who have done well without a university education.

"We need a cultural change because, fundamentally, this is about our values, about how we value people, and Singapore must always be a place where everyone can feel proud of what they do, where you are respected for your contributions and your character, and anyone can improve his life if he works hard and everyone can hope for a better future," he said.

Put this way, it's a lot to ask, almost requiring the PM to move heaven and earth to make it happen.

To understand what it will take to make this transformation, you have to first know what the present condition is like.

In fact, the issue is more than just about whether a university degree is useful for everyone and will get you ahead in life.

It is about the more deeply entrenched view of how Singapore regards talent and the role of the elite here.

It's a pity the PM didn't spend more time on this because I believe he would have made a greater impact if he did.

So what is the prevailing narrative?

At its core, it is that Singapore is a little red dot with no natural resources and so has to depend solely on its people to earn its keep.

And the most important group is those at the top, in leadership positions, because the decisions they make matter the most to the country's survival and success.

Therefore every effort must be made to identify, nurture and develop them.

They have innate intelligence and drive, and given the right conditions and support, will make their abilities count.

A university education is a basic requisite, but not just any degree as only the very best of the Oxbridge or Ivy League kind will do.

It was a powerful narrative that shaped the way Singapore educated and selected those earmarked for these positions.

Generous government scholarships were granted to the select few with stellar academic achievements.

Local institutions like the National University of Singapore were not considered good or prestigious enough even as their global rankings rose.

The elite Administrative Service was where most of these scholars ended up, and its pay scale reflected their pedigree standing, pegged, like ministerial salaries, to top earners in the private sector.

This narrative was reinforced at every opportunity.

One of the favourite lines from the ruling party's candidates at General Election time was how, from humble beginnings, they made their way to the top through this route.

It became a large part of the Singapore brand of meritocracy and accepted as one of the defining values that made it succeed.

I think most people bought into it, and many still believe it continues to be relevant.

What's not so clear though is how this narrative affected ordinary Singaporeans, especially non-graduates, and how they saw their place in society.

Did they feel like second-class citizens, of less value, because they could make only limited contributions to the country's progress, especially in the material sense?

Did they have less confidence in the future, for their children especially, knowing they were not regarded highly and would not be able to join the select ranks?

Or did it spur them to make even greater effort so they could become one of them?

Perhaps some were inspired, but there would be many who might have felt they didn't belong in a country that continually focused on the contributions of the top.

Their diminished sense of self-worth, if not addressed, would alienate them further from the leadership.

Indeed the warning signs are already evident, including the anti-elitism that has grown over the years, surfacing every time there is some perceived misstep or failure of the Government in implementing its policies.

To be fair, the Government has tried in recent years to rebalance its approach in various ways, opening up more options in education, pouring resources into the Institute of Technical Education and the polytechnics, and making its policies more inclusive.

But the elite narrative has been so powerfully broadcast and absorbed over the years that it will take more than these initiatives to bring about a real change in mindset that the PM talked about.

Even more interesting is the question of whether the powers- that-be agree that fundamental change is needed.

I think there are many who continue to believe that, given Singapore's vulnerabilities and constraints, the elite approach isn't wrong.

Exceptional leadership will continue to be a key factor in determining whether Singapore succeeds.

This being the case, can the two narratives - the old and the recently proposed - co-exist?

Can Singapore be a place that continues to place great emphasis on elite leadership with all the support system built over the years intact, and also one which values every individual regardless of his or her education and material possessions?

Or will something have to give?

Singapore isn't the only country trying to manage this balance.

In Japan, there is also intense competition among students to get into the top universities like Tokyo and Kyoto, and to join the major companies like Sony and Toyota or the powerful ministries such as Finance and Trade and Industry.

But it is also a society with a high regard for workers at every level.

The result has been a people known to take great pride in their work and to try to achieve perfection in whatever they do, whether as waiters, factory workers or master craftsmen.

It's a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved when there is respect and recognition all round, and less disparity in status and rewards between the top and the bottom.

Perhaps that's also how the Scandinavian countries are able to achieve a high standard of development in a more egalitarian environment.

Can the new Singapore Story produce similar results?

Maybe it is time to move heaven and earth.

More than 300 Firms Waiting to Hire Poly and ITE Grads
S’pore economy needs ‘talent’ at middle levels in tight labour market
By Xue Jianyue and Kok Xing Hui, TODAY, 1 Sep 2014

With a tight labour market, Singapore needs talent at the “middle” levels and the Government has been working with companies to help place good polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) graduates in these jobs.

Speaking at a post-National Day Rally (NDR) dialogue with Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC residents yesterday, Minister of State (Trade and Industry) Teo Ser Luck, who is also Member of Parliament for the constituency, said more than 300 firms are waiting to hire ITE and polytechnic graduates and the Government is trying to help in job matching.

He was responding to a question from a resident, who asked why it had been necessary to set up the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review committee to enhance education and career development for non-graduates.

Mr Teo said firms could not have a situation where they have only managers and no supervisors and middle-level staff. “In fact, there are more jobs at that kind of middle level and supervisory level waiting to be filled. So, when I work with companies to find ITE and polytechnic graduates, actually, they are very willing to offer jobs and traineeship,” he said. “(The) labour policy (has been) tightened, so they need a lot of ITE and polytechnic students.”

Another resident was concerned that the opening of more pathways to universities — introduced in the past few years — would lead to an oversupply of graduates who earned degrees in areas of their interest, but fail to find a job.

In response, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who was also present at the dialogue, said young people should do something that is practical and leads to a decent job. Interests can be pursued as a passion rather than a career, he added.

He noted that youth nowadays could take a year off to pursue their passion with the support of their parents, instead of heading straight to work.

“If you take your time and develop an interest, and you pursue the interest (as) something that can give you a decent living, I think that is okay,” he said. “But if you pursue an interest and find it difficult to make a living after that, and you expect your parents to pay a lot of money for you … I think for young people, that is not (the) most responsible thing to do.”

Separately, at another post-NDR dialogue in Sembawang GRC yesterday attended by about 150 youth, some said it might take a generation to change the population’s mindset to one that does not limit people based on paper qualifications.

Responding, Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair said: “I think the mindset shifts that are required are probably in the students themselves. And here is a tough balance because the message is not ‘don’t study’; (it) also is not ‘studying is not important’. But I think the key message is wherever you are, do your best and there will be options and opportunities available.”

DPM Teo: Degree no longer a 'one-way ticket to success'
By Aw Cheng Wei, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2014

NON-GRADUATES with "skills in demand" may have an easier time looking for a job than degree holders, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

This is already happening in "several countries", he said yesterday in a speech at an alumni dinner for his alma mater, University of Manchester, held at Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

In China, where there is a glut of graduates, a waiter's starting salary can be double that of an executive, according to its state-run newspaper Global Times.

DPM Teo's comments follow recommendations proposed a fortnight ago by the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review committee, which aim to help students from these schools chart better career paths.

Calls for better internships, career counselling and more online learning opportunities were made by the committee chaired by Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah.

Mr Teo said while a degree used to be "considered a one- way ticket to success", it is "not quite the case today" due to the abundance of higher education.

Therefore, universities today must understand the needs of the job market before they can provide their graduates with the "necessary knowledge and skills". Mr Teo said the Internet is one way that universities can use to keep their students and alumni relevant to the workforce, adding that "ways of doing so will continue to evolve".

For now, students may sign up for modules in "bite-sized chunks in specific areas of interest or need", instead of a structured programme. Universities can also use the Internet as a platform to "build strong relationships with their alumni".

Mr Teo added: "Education is no longer a one-off experience for students while they are at university, but a continual process of learning throughout their lives."

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