Friday, July 13, 2018

Are diploma holders too "well-rounded" ?

It all started with Unintelligent Nerd who wrote to inform me about an online rant from an investor, whom I thoroughly respect, called ThumbTackInvestor who had gotten sick of people who complain about the stock market so he wrote something to rebuke them.

You can find a link to that statement here. It is a super-entertaining read.

I thoroughly enjoyed this rant.  

But in it, TTI made an obscure statement saying that if you have a diploma, you might be too "well-rounded". I felt that this statement could be expanded into something more comprehensive so that readers can have be given more food for thought. When TTI made the statement he took great pains to make it more politically correct, so I went out to try to figure out what he meant.

In my new "unemployed hobo" state, some strange people write to me to invite me to ask to hang out, often just for fun. Yesterday, I was invited by a fairly successful Fintech company to Ayer Rajah crescent to have lunch with their employees and share some of my ideas on investing and attaining financial independence. 

Beyond just taking about personal finance, I tried to ask the Fintech company some pointed questions about the hiring of engineers. I asked their engineers why are there no diploma holders in their company. There are definitely polytechnic graduates with solid computer science degrees, but why don't they have any median polytechnic graduates because they are so much cheaper and this can dramatically reduce their burn rate.

The answers were fast, furious and brutally honest. 

One engineer, a polytechnic alumni himself, gave me possibly the most brutal answer. 

The median polytechnic graduate often comes from a lower income family and has to balance part time work with their studies. They will not graduate with solid programming skills to survive in a fast-paced engineering environment. If they are paired with an engineer to do programming in a startup, they are more likely to get in the way and slow them down.

I can corroborate this point. I witnessed the difference between an internship application from SMU and Temasek polytechnic in a boutique law firm. The TP candidates often worked part-time, many were proud to share that stint in MacDonalds. When I was a trainee myself, I found myself impressed with their resilience. And they are a lot more work-ready than U grads.

In my opinion, this is kind of festering inequality that may be worth addressing not by governments, but by the private sector. Startups are the most egalitarian organisations in Singapore, if they are not willing to take in the average diploma holder, we can't expect out elitist government organisations to do that.

I came to ask myself what I can strive to do if I ever transition into entrepreneurship. My cash flow is adequately taken care of by my dividend income, so can I do something meaningful as a business man and make a profit at the same time ? After all, diploma and ITE holders have much lower salary expectations. 

So in this post, I'm talking about helping the most discriminated person in the future Singapore economy - the non-degree holder. Look at Parliaments worldwide today, how many politicians actually lack degrees compared to the proportion of non-degree holders in society ? 

( Singapore is actually ok in that regard, MP Charles Chong does not have a degree ! )

This is not completely altruistic. I believe that a businessman that can build non-bullshit jobs for non-degree holders in the future will be solving a serious problem and can make a huge profit at the same time. 

The question is how do we do this ?

This weekend, I will be talking about the Bullshit Jobs phenomenon by channeling a book by anthropologist David Graeber. Formal definitions will be shared this weekend.

At this stage, I'm not better than an academic sociologist - I only have a well defined problem. The solution can only come later after I incorporate.

Perhaps readers who are bosses can share with us what is it like to engage in job design and how to keep the spirits of non-degree workers up in an era of massive disruption.

Remember, it's not mere job creation. 

This has to be non-bullshit jobs for non-degree holders. That's a hard problem.


  1. Hi Chris,

    As a former Poly graduate myself, maybe I am qualified to share a few pointers here. The main reason being, most of those that were good in programming had upgraded their skill set to a degree. Therefore, they are technically considered as a degree holder, though they also hold a poly diploma.

    Those who struggle or spent time doing part-time work during their poly days, unfortunately did not do that well. The reason is quite simple. Programming is not only a skill whereby one can acquired by just reading books and taking exams. One needs the passion to go through projects and develop their skills in troubleshooting, design and also writing efficient codes. Hours are needed to spend on this "hobby" to perfect the skill. If one is working while studying, it is difficult to commit long hours to it. Most of these poly graduates possibly ended up working in different fields or doing sales, system administration etc, which involves little programming work but still in IT.

  2. Hi Chris,

    i did part time tuition throughout my 4 years at SMU and work during the summer holidays ( I only did one internship). however, I did not struggle academically and developed rock solid skills:p. I think it is down to passion and hunger to succeed. I did tremendously well in my finance modules because i was passionate about investing and valuations. i acquired them by reading forums, books and not via my module materials

  3. Well, given the relative cheapness of the median diploma student, could it be possible to give them some office hours to level them up to the point whereby they become useful ?

    Our startups and SMEs simply don't have the resources to level them up !

  4. Hiring fresh poly grads is always seen as a risk. The good ones will always leave to get his/her degree and may never come back.