Many of us have been told that a university degree is the only key to career success, but is this really true? Let’s debunk this traditional mindset by exploring education vs. experience.
“Study hard, grow up, earn money in a high-paying job.”
This age-old rhetoric has been repeated countless times in many Asian households. Singaporeans are no exception. Many generations of us have had this mantra ingrained in us as we make a bid for financial success, freedom and bringing prestige and prosperity to the family name.
Just look at Singapore’s Top Highest-Paying Jobs for 2022 and see how many of the listed job titles you recognise from the past career conversations you’ve had with your parents.
This has inadvertently bred a toxic and competitive study culture among Singapore youths, constantly pressured to chase the paper. Even after graduation, this problem is still apparent. It merely hides behind the facade and rigour of hustle culture.
According to the 2021 Graduate Employment Survey (GES)  , the employment rate has risen from 69.8% in 2020 to 84% in 2021. However, this extent of increase wasn’t reflected in the median gross monthly income for fresh graduates. Instead, it only went up from S$3,700 in 2020 to S$3,800 in 2021.
So this begs the question: is a piece of paper really necessary to secure our financial future?
Table of contents
- Factors affecting employability
- Changing norms in the workforce
- Gaining experience
- Establishing connections
- Soft skills and mental fortitude
- Traditional and outdated recruiting mindsets
- The relevance of degrees now
- Socio-economic effects of education
Which is more useful in 2022: education or experience
Which affects employability more?
In order to decide which argument holds more weight, we have to first understand the forces at play influencing employment.
The state of the economy, business demands and skillsets are three important determinants that employers consider for their prospective employees. (This is why candidates with subpar or minimal qualifications tend to experience higher rates of unemployment.)
Simultaneously, recent trends reveal that fresh graduates are employed in jobs barely related to their degree scopes — to the extent where some of them are working in completely unrelated fields.
Norms are shifting
In 2021, 73% of employers didn’t view academic qualifications as the main criteria for hiring, particularly for professional, manager, executive and technician (PMET) roles, reports the Ministry of Manpower in its Labour Market Survey.
Instead, the top reason (43%) cited for PMET positions left unfilled was due to an absence of necessary specialised skills. Irrelevant qualifications wasn’t a reason cited on the list.
All these data points prove that qualifications aren’t that big of a deal as society insists. If anything, the proliferation of online courses on sites like Coursera has made qualification attainment more accessible, customised and flexible.
Skills, experience, and the right attitude speak volumes for themselves.
Pro-tip: You can claim up to S$5,000 annually in the form of Course Fees Relief if you attend an approved course, seminar or conference that awards an approved qualification. So take advantage of your SkillsFuture credits to upskill and upgrade yourself!
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A degree can’t teach you everything
Degrees also fall out of relevance if you graduated a decade or two ago. Consistent upskilling and expanding your experience repertoire is what’ll help you stand out among the next generation crowd of fresh graduates.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that volatility and unpredictability are the only constants in the economy. That said, knowledge and skills gained from a university degree are prone to becoming irrelevant at any moment.
What helps instead is to continually have a positive mindset and can-do attitude to never stop learning regardless of your career stage. New things are constantly being discovered, rendering old information to become quickly outdated.
Especially if you hold a job in STEM, programming languages update pretty frequently. So if you’re not on the ball, it’s easy to get lost and fall behind your peers. All this makes establishing a career sound daunting, competitive, and even cutthroat, but that’s not always the case.
With luck, building your career in the right environment can offer some of the best learning experiences as a fresh-grad-turned-young-adult.
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Connections go a long way
So how can you gain access to a positive and nurturing work environment? If you don’t want to purely depend on Lady Luck, connections will get you there.
Like bread and butter, experience and connections go hand in hand well. In a potentially dog-eat-dog world, the working world can appear cold, intimidating and unwelcoming. However, having the right connections with the right people makes a huge difference.
For instance, having the right PR connections gets you exclusive access to media invites or inside scoops on the latest news. You’ll always know how to find the right person for the task you need help with.
So don’t wait till you graduate; network as much as you can whenever you can. Don’t be afraid to reach out, socialise and get to know others. As the adage goes, growth only happens when we dare to step out of our comfort zones.
But even then, don’t force yourself to pretend to act like someone you’re not. Start small by chatting to the people immediately around you. If the conversation flows, great! If it doesn’t, don’t be too discouraged.
You can only obtain a wider outreach if you cast a big net, not a single fishing line. Just keep at it, and eventually, you’re bound to strike up a meaningful conversation with a couple of people and make valuable connections then.
Whatever it is, be genuine and open to new conversations. People can sniff out hidden agendas from a mile away and would be wary and unwilling to engage with you.
Sometimes, making connections in your career will lead you to greater heights (literally) like travelling overseas for business opportunities. Rack up valuable miles points with an air miles credit card to maximise all your business travels.
Soft skills and mental fortitude are also very valuable
Another thing that employers seek in candidates is their ability to “learn, reason, and think logically”, especially in the face of problem-solving. Furthermore, 45% of hiring managers agree that an applicant’s potential is the highlight of their application, reveals TopResume Survey.
It stands to reason why 75% of Fortune 500 companies reportedly incorporate psychometric tests and scenario-based assessments in their interviews.
Soft skills such as interpersonal communication, empathy and patience still remain intrinsically important to many roles. For example, while technology and technical skills have contributed to advancing medicine in leaps and bounds, the human touch cannot be omitted nor replicated. AI cannot deliver a diagnosis as empathetically as a human-to-human connection can.
In essence, soft skills and mental fortuity are key assets that’ll make you a valuable team player no matter where you end up.
Dismantling old and outdated hiring principles
Well, the good news is that supposedly, many recruiters frequently present employers with applicants possessing the appropriate skill set and experience, irrespective of qualifications.
Despite the lack of paper proof, such candidates embody the relevant traits and capabilities to prove themselves as the right fit for the job. So long as you express earnestness, a willingness to learn and adaptability, lacking a degree was never a huge setback.
The societal value attached to being a degree-holder is misplaced and misguided. This tradition has only reiterated misconceptions that those without degrees are unworthy or incapable when that is far from the truth.
So do all this mean degrees are obsolete?
Absolutely not. Work experience may be fundamental in performing well on the job today but qualifications endow you with opportunities for advancement tomorrow.
In most cases, your degree proves your suitability for an entry-level role as seen by how job listings in job portals still largely require at least a Bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite. More than that, the learning journey also has its merits.
Schooling — particularly at a post-tertiary level — offers a structured approach to learning in mentally rigorous and challenging fields like medicine or law. The setting of debates, seminars and lectures in university help stimulate intellectual curiosity and inspire creative thinking.
Education has and always will be a crucial tool in developing critical thinkers and problem-solvers of each generation.
The socio-economic downside to educational pursuits
Time and again, studies have also shown that low educational attainment is intricately intertwined with persistent income disparity and poverty cycles.
For instance, there are roughly 270,000 Singaporean millionaires but 792,000 adults possess less than S$13,500 in net worth. The highly skilled and educated are constantly in high demand and earn higher salaries while the lowly-skilled and less educated experience income stagnation.
The combined effect of these two results in a widening wage gap between the wealthy and poor in Singapore.
So if prevention is better than cure, the solution is for the entire Singapore population to acquire a decent standard of education, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Theoretically speaking, if the entire population magically achieves a Bachelor’s degree, the new baseline for ‘being educated’ will just be shifted up the ladder to a new benchmark. Perhaps a minimum of Post-Graduate studies would be the new standard. What then?
Your work experience will then serve as a true testament to your abilities.
So what’s the final consensus?
Higher education is useful for early career-building whereas job experience, skill acquisition, and connections are more important for career longevity later on.
All of the aforementioned qualities have their merit in establishing your career for the long run. However, they differ in relevance and importance weightage. Educational achievement and accolades usually help you land that job, but how you advance thereon relies on your skills, experience and connections.
In our opinion, prioritise the quality that’ll boost your adaptability the most in any work setting. By being highly adaptable, you’ll become versatile and capable to work across various job scopes with minimal on-the-job training required to assimilate.
Being adaptable is a strong suit that’ll make you highly desirable and invaluable anywhere in the workforce.
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