Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Possible solutions for Polytechnic Graduates.

The last post on Polytechnic students must have struck a chord with the readership as the numbers have been off the charts. It has sparked a firestorm of comments on EDMW, you can find the link here. This is particularly amusing because the first few comments were complaints that my post was too long and the those readers demanded summaries to the post which, somehow, proves my point about the folks who blame the 70% and call all of us "Sinkies". 

One or two comments, however, were valid criticisms of my original post.

The post has also been reproduced with my permission here because I guess some educators felt that this was something parents should read about.

Since the original post came out, some folks have volunteered more information about polytechnic education in Singapore. I leave it to the readers to verify the truth of these statements :

a) The average polytechnic student spend more time in the gym or playing computer games during lectures. An attitude problem exists within a significant proportion of the cohort.
b) Polytechnic exams are too easy and are slanted to assist the majority of the cohort. The top 20% who are bound for local university have been complaining for ages as they feel that they are not being sufficiently prepared by their Polys for the academic rigours of university work.
c) One problem raised is that the polytechnic lecturers themselves need to have an attitude of continuous self-improvement before it can rub off on their students. ( This is a valid feedback on the failures of my own generation of professionals. )

This post is primarily about solutions and I have to admit that I can't come up with very good ones.

If financial bloggers are that DAMN good, we'd be running the Education ministry.

Also, I doubt that this blog will be read by average Polytechnic students and I am confident that any solution will only be employed by the top Poly students to push themselves further up the social economic ladder and they will see a lot of personal success in this new economy.

But this is the best I can come up with :

a) Wait for the apprenticeship system to be fully implemented

A lot of readers including myself really want the German apprenticeship system to take off. I actually think that this system will take years to succeed and we'll be seeing a lot of false starts and foot shuffling before corporations start to en-roll for this scheme.

The reason is simple.

In Germany, the apprenticeship system is treating with the same respect as the academic track. This distributes talented workers between two branches fairly evenly so companies have that confidence that they will be able to find a decent mix of workers in their programmes. The same assurance cannot be made within Singapore.

I am guessing that the first few batches will not meet the expectations of a German Mittelstand and the government will need to manage the eventual fall-out deftly.

b)  Leverage on online learning resources.

This is a nice solution that will work for the top 20% but will fail for the rest of the Polytechnic population. There are really good learning resources online but you will need a minimal level of motivation to want to pick up these new skills.

Bloggers can harp about how effective these online credentials are but if you are only motivated to earn enough money to do more LAN gaming, nothing I say can influence you further because... TLDR...

c) Join the Civil Service

I am glad that Civil service is opening its doors to non-degree officers. Not all government work requires the ability to conceptualise policy and the bulk of the work can be administrative and do not require degrees.

I am more skeptical about whether the government is genuine about hiring diploma holders into their ranks because these are highly desirable jobs and the government may end up just taking the cream of the crop and ignore the median Singaporean.

As of now, the Government remains the most elitist workplace I have ever worked for and I doubt a mindset change can be made within one generation. We may end up leaving out a good stable career for the average Singaporean.

d) Emigration

What bothered me is that when me and friends discussed a solution, this was the only solution that could withstand an intellectual challenge.

Singaporeans have increased in value over the years because of our "integrity". We're so clean that we simply do not understand how corrupt societies work. This makes us amazing catches if we are wiling to relocate to other societies and companies have to manage the legal risks of violating extra-territorial laws like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

As such, our "innocence" holds great value.

We might be average in Singapore but we might be a valued human resource if we can take our basic skills into a tier-2 city like Chongqing. We need to nudge successful Singaporeans abroad to offer a helping hand to other Singaporeans who are stuck in a dead-end position locally.

Am I satisfied with these solutions ? Probably not.

I am however, fully prepared to supplement my children's income with investment returns if they fail to make it under the local education system. I think Singaporean parents over-invest in tuition, I will be balancing this versus the establishment of a financial portfolio.

Hope this will give them an edge which other parents cannot provide.

( I will never allow myself to get into a fair fight with other parents when it comes to my kid's future, sorry ! )


  1. A reader and friend Soh Thiam Heng has some tactical advice for Poly students :

    How do millennial poly students make a comeback:

    1) Don't be lazy, save some money - yes, tendency is to slack but there is a time to slack and a time to play. Be more disciplined in allocating your time and money. Work if you have to.

    2) Make full use of national and institutional resources - the NLB and libraries are there for a reason!

    3) Network, network, network - This is one of the major factors IMO which hinders the future prospects of poly students.

    4) Trust the skills that have been taught - what you learn in poly is a bridge to your future career.

    5) Be sure of what you are going to do - this is the other the major factor which I think many average singaporeans fail at. one must develop an idea before you finish your O levels of what you will do in 5 to 10 years' time. hence i think exposure to different industries and skills is important during secondary school.

    6) Side projects and "non-school stuff" - if your grades aren't impressive, at least make sure your side hustles are good enough to get recruiters to notice you!

    It has a same weakness of my advice. Unless I become Steven Lim or Xiaxue, this message is only expected to reach the better performers.


  2. I dont think individually speaking, Singaporeans, will be employed due to our integrity. Its our country that is being known, not so much individually. Maybe its real but i dont feel it. I think we as humans are as honest as everyone else la.

  3. Hi Christopher,

    I have been a silent reader for awhile and even till the previous post on polytechnic students. Personally, I’m one polytechnic student myself and I will not deny on the fact that most of the students are slackish, lazy and clueless about what to do.

    The flaws in this education system is that it has failed terribly to help identify what a student truly needs/want to be. More importantly, the peers around that influences each other negatively which the students to lack in motivation.

    But, I stand firmly to my belief that, the person itself are the one to be blamed and not the school. The objective of this institution is to educate you on the relevant ‘knowledge’ for your field of study.

    I’ve been through the phase briefly and reflecting back today. I do not regret ever, taking my step out of the ‘polytechnic students life’.

    I too, picked up things myself. Self-learnt things from online resources and through different wise bloggers. If the poly students, now felt that they have wasted their life and wanted to do something about it..

    What they can do now is, to identify their goals, objectives, direction and more importantly possess positive attitude like perserverance, willingness to learn and stay motivated.

    Never give up.

  4. Your argument about the fault lying firmly on the individual would be more convincing if these polytechnic students are really below average compared to the rest of the population.

    If these guys are the average dudes in Singapore who are neither good nor bad compared to the rest of Singapore, then the institution and lecturers ( who are uni grads like me ) need to reflect upon whether the institution is doing poly grads any justice.

    This might mean creating CCAs like the A level club for the really good ones to take A level as a private candidate, or ensuring that 1 out of 5 questions really test the analytical capabilities of the poly students.

    Nevertheless I respect your call to take personal responsibility.

  5. Hello Christopher!

    I've been reading your blog religiously since Investors Exchange 2017. I feel a bit sad when you say you doubt that the average Polytechnic graduate will read this blog. The good news is I'm a Polytechnic graduate and I'm reading your blog but sadly, I'm neither average or top 20%.

    I strongly agree with point b). The game is getting harder for everyone but information is more accessible now. I think we should start seeing ourselves as portfolios of knowledge and start devouring free/paid information and reap the dividends.

    Lastly, I really like your blog. I like your writing style, book recommendations and of course the financial advice you give. Oh, your relationship advice is not that bad too! I searched your blog for relationship advice after reading a recent post on conscientiousness and read all your Valentine's day series.

    After reading quite a bit on financial planning, I think there's one portion that's always missing and that's the contribution to parents. I always wonder how many percent of their income is allocated to their parents? Would be great if you could share on that. Thanks.

    On the last working day of 2017, I wish you best of health and wealth for 2018!

  6. Thanks KW,

    I have a deep faith in my readers after interacting them in my talks and on this blog. I believe that all my readers are special and have a destiny for greatness.

    Do take note that I do not give any guarantees on the relationship advice I dish out because they are not back-tested for effectiveness.


  7. >a) Wait for the apprenticeship system to be fully implemented

    Corporations here will take the cue from the government. Unless the government accepts graduates from apprenticeships without prejudice, it will not get anywhere other than create even more confusion on the job market among the apprentices and the HR departments. That said, one of the fundamental problems goes back to simply a matter of work ethics. Apprenticeships help even the field for those whose brains are not "wired" for academic study, but will not solve work ethic issues which frankly plagues a substantial portion of the cohort.

    Incidentally, this issue of declining work ethic is probably not unique to Singapore.

    >b) Leverage on online learning resources.

    Those online resources require even greater self discipline, perservrance, and pro-active behaviours than former schooling.

    >c) Join the Civil Service

    Which means they will serve as the peons of the system. Sure, they may earn more than slogging out there in the private sector, but their careers won't be going anywhere fast (while they still stand a chance to advance their careers in the private sector).

    >d) Emigration
    >We might be average in Singapore but we might be a valued human resource if we can take our basic skills into a tier-2 city like Chongqing.

    The average Singaporean can't even work there as an English interpreter given our half baked English and Chinese skills. Meanwhile the naievity of Singaporeans will see them getting taken advantage of by the locals. No offence, but your faith in the skills of locals astounds me.

  8. MT,

    If you are right, the situation looks hopeless for local Polygrads !


  9. (Part 1)

    I won't say it is hopeless; just that it is harder than ever. Gen X faced greater challenges than the Baby Boomers. The Millennials will also face greater challenges than Gen X. Technological and economic advances turned localized market into a big global market. This has created massive competition on global scale, which coupled with an increaing winner-takes-all market, squeezing the professional class into a small, highly successful group with the rest picking up the crumbs falling off the table (yes, even for college graduates). The internet (and now with fibre based broadband, coupled with cheap computing devices) has only intensified competition to "hyper" levels. Recruiters can just search through LinkedIn for candidates across all geographic locales. You can easily apply for schools and jobs halfway across the world easily with the internet. I'm sure you remember it was like in the past to apply for jobs via snail mail. Today, you can apply for graduate programs where you don't even need to send in a sealed envelope with your referee's handwritten recommendation letter; all you need to do is to supply his/her email and the admission office will contact your referee when necessary.

    While it is not impossible for the current global market to return to its previous geographically segmented state (which is partly dependent on the so-called liberal world order promoted by the US and its allies in the post-war world), it can still be dialed back somewhat, which may reduce the overall market efficiency and bring some relief to most people below the top 10-20%(?) of the population. However, we cannot (and should not) rely on it for succor.

    On top of the pressures of globalized hyper competition, automation is biting out a big chunk of existing jobs. Granted, there is the arguments of how new jobs will appear to take over older ones (blacksmiths and typists are exemplars), there are plenty of stories of manufacturing plants rely on automation where the machines are taken care of by a small team of highly trained technical staff. Instead, the large number of new jobs that are being created are often in the gig economy which is undesirable in terms of zero hour contracts, generally low income, lack of various benefits, and accentuates retirement difficulties due a common inability of humans to set aside for the future. (Hey, maybe we should really be looking into that concept of universal income after all...)

  10. Part 2

    Ok, bring the conversation back to our polytechnic graduates (or for the matter, those of us without even a 2nd upper honours degree). What can they do? Are they stuck in low end jobs, only to be one day squeezed out to become Uber drivers and delivering food? Perhaps many will be, if the current trend continues. Indeed, what can they do? They will have to climb their way up into that 10-20%*, some way, somehow. Entreprenurship another path to take, which is a difficult but not entirely impossible.

    However, all these require:
    1. Realization that they aren't going to get anywhere if they continue coasting along and they currently are. If they aren't coasting, then they need to figure out what is going wrong for them.
    2. Finding something that they are good at (tall order!).
    3. Put in the time and effort to build marketable skills or building a marketable product.

    Essentially, people must first realize that they need to spending all their free time chatting on Facebook or playing DOTA, and start spending time taking care of their career and employability. You won't become a first class talent purely by hardwork alone, but you can get somewhere by applying your hardwork towards your strengths. Unfortunately, the schooling system doesn't make this easy. The mentality of teenagers don't help either. Personally, I think this "awakening" can come with age, which makes having a society (in terms of education and employment opportunities) that allows comebacks easier. Unfortunately, this is easier in western countries like Canada and Australia, than Singapore.

    IMO, the government has two things that they can do. The first is to reduce the educational stratification within the civil service (and by extention, the stat boards too)**. Again, unfortunately, I don't think this will happen any time soon. The second is to expose secondary school students to the "real world". In some US graduate school programs (namely PhD), they have a lab rotation scheme, where new students spend a period of at different labs to get a handle on the research done at different faculty members' labs before deciding on which lab that they will enter (and slave there for the next >=5 years till they graduate). This is just a hazy idea that I have come up with (though I've not been drinking), but the implementation is not going to be easy.

    *This presupposes that the current economy is not going to revert back to the previous decades of a big middle class. Incidentally, a big middle class is not common in human history. IMO, governments have limited ability to influence the economy to result in a big middle class, without falling into the trap of a command economy (a la Soviet style) with its disastrous consequences. Of course, one can debate about the plight of the plebs in a hyper capitalist economy vs an efficient command economy. Disclaimer: I am not an economist.

    **Possibly scrap the scholarship system? *Gasp* Oh the horrors!

    It's a Saturday night and I feel particularly verbose at the moment (not necessarily exhibiting anything other than a meandering chain of thoughts).