Saturday, February 27, 2021

Perspectives on graduate employment amidst a pandemic

I was so busy completing my course, doing more previews and preparing for my talk with Rotary Club tomorrow that I did not have time for my blog. The thing I really want to talk about is the Graduate Employment Survey of 2020. This is a very special survey because we get to see how a massive economic downturn can affect local graduates. 

This blog has always affirmed making practical and realistic decisions in the face of an ultra-competitive and unforgiving society. I did not mince words when I hear folks talking about studying for passion instead of doing something that can put food on the table. Live solely for passion, and it will be your funeral in a pandemic. There's no freedom without discipline in Singapore. 

Alas, I'm only beginning to look at the numbers so I'm not ready to write a brutal rundown of the state of local degrees yet. 

Instead,  I will share three perspectives from a cursory examination of the numbers :

a) There is a big difference when picking your major within your university faculty

The first sign of disappointment with the survey is that NUS does not provide granular results on the major chosen by the graduate, but I was as "happy as a clam" to know that NTU breaks the results down based on the chosen subject.

Focusing on the College of Humanities in NTU, there are some results that are quite baffling to me.  

It is interesting that folks who studied English Language only had an employment rate of 43.2% but had the same student majored in philosophy, he/she would be employed 70.4% of the time. 

Both degrees are general degrees from the College of Humanities but what explains the larger gap in employment rate? 

I thought perhaps philosophy was more practical than the English Language until I found out that Economics only had a 63.5% employment rate. I do know (from studying legal theory and philosophy) that philosophy is really hard and society may be rewarding students who chose a really hard major to study. 

b) The Honours premium

I used to think that studying for an additional year is more of a matter of personal pride. For Gen-X, there are advantages of starting out one year earlier than your peers in the working world as you can earn an additional year of income before your Honours classmates catch up with you. As we're more competitive these days, an Honors degree has become a mark of distinction and a form of signalling, I am seeing an unusual premium for graduates with an Honours degree.

For NUS Arts, a non-honours degree is worth a basic salary of $3,100 but doing an additional year adds $400 to your salary. Odds of full-time employment six months after graduation jumps from a dismal 40% to close to 55%. A similar pattern can be found for Science degrees - non-honours earns a basic salary of $3000 and an honours degree can boost it to $3500. Employment outcomes are boosted similarly at an additional 15%.

Studying advanced modules for one additional year can generate a significant boost in income given that the average increment over a PMET's lifestyle is approximately 5% every year. If you lose six months of employment against your peers, graduating early will not make a big difference anyway.  

c) The local university matters when it comes to seeking employment

One prediction I made when Singapore decided to bow against political pressure and started creating more autonomous universities is the emergence of tier-2 universities which are designed to pacify the graduates who would have gone to private universities a decade ago. 

Here are my attempts at tabulating the employment and starting salaries of an IT degree from different institutions :

  • NUS - Bachelor of Computing - 92.6% / $5,100
  • NTU - Computer Science - 86.1% / $4,450
  • SMU - Information Systems - 83.9% / $4,500 - Cum Laude - 93.3% / $5,000
  • SIT - Software Engineering - 97.4% / $4,034
  • SUTD - Information Systems Technology and Design - 85.7% / $4,400

Even in a hot IT market, there is a significant variance in the starting salaries of IT graduates, an NUS Computing grad has a $1,000 advantage against an SIT graduate! 

I leave it to the reader to think about whether this $1,000 premium is justified. 

In fact, you will find more gaps as you look at non-tech degrees. 

( I will postpone any discussion on  NUS Music or SUSS HR Mgt majors another day! )

Of course, this survey is very much skewed by the pandemic but it is very important to preserve these results because after my kids become teenagers, they may trawl through my blog and find this later when they are trying to make a decision on what to study in the future. 


  1. Comp sci has been elevated back into the top echelon. Median starting of $5k similar to the other 2 elite majors, medicine & law.

    Think the last time this happened was during the late-90s dot com boom.

    For the next couple of years, we're going to see top A-level students rotating from finance & accounting to comp sci & comp eng.

  2. That's provided the pendulum does not swing the other way when the Govt signs some CECA-like treaty to flood the markets with IT professionals in the near future.

    1. I think the political landscape has changed from the 1990s & 2000s. Even if they need extra fresh blood for growth or essential industries, they will do it via usual flood gate control, instead of carte blanche treaty. You notice how actively in recent years the govt has been modifying the work passes, dependency ratios, minimum salaries, foreigner levies, renewal rates, etc.

      The days when Singapore is willing to sign an internationally legally binding agreement touching on HR flows has gone with GCT & LKY. Unlike 3rd world countries, we will straightjacket ourselves & abide by contracts & agreements even if we realise it's a mistake & hamstringing our citizens. This is S'pore's strength & weakness. Other 3rd world countries would likely have torn up the agreement & flung it back at the other party's face.

  3. Hi Chris,

    Those who are not in these five Universities will have an uphill task in securing employment. I believe that the alternative is to venture overseas or redouble the effort in applying for as many jobs in the hope of the prespective employers opting for him/her over the established graduates in these five universities. The going will be tough and it can be done.


  4. Wow! Are these average salaries or top salaries for graduates?

  5. Having worked with one of the local universities previously, close enough to have insights into how GES was conducted, at least for that institution, I would take the GES survey results with a pinch of salt. Who they choose to survey can tilt the survey results. If the sampling is targeted towards graduates who had found job, worked for mnc instead of startups or smes or simply not working, graduates with good GPA etc, the sampling results could become tilted. Fact is the GES is not conducted by independent third parties but by the universities themselves.

  6. Basically the sampling can be biased and there is not check and balance in the process.