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Commentary: If grades matter less in Singapore, young job seekers may struggle to stand out

There is no question that a broader definition of merit is what Singapore should aspire to – but if not managed well, it could merely translate into more pressure for students to stand out in a competitive job market, says Ng Chia Wee.

Commentary: If grades matter less in Singapore, young job seekers may struggle to stand out

NUS Business School graduates at their commencement ceremony. (File photo: TODAY)

SINGAPORE: Are grades or internships more important in getting a job? What are the trade-offs in chasing internships? How can recruiters and job seekers alike stop fixating on academic achievement?

These were among the questions posed to a panel I sat on in September, in a dialogue organised by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). We discussed the concerns young people face transitioning from school to work with about 70 student participants.

Yet the concerns that stood out to me that night were less about the anxieties associated with beginning that first job, but rather with clinching that job in the first place.

Long before this dialogue, it was clear that my generation was anxious about securing good jobs.

“Our students feel pigeonholed in a system where the stakes are high from very early in their lives. Our graduates and workers are anxious about their careers,” said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong at the launch of the Forward Singapore exercise in June.

An inter-university survey released in June revealed that “career prospects after university” was the third highest source of stress overall across 470 respondents.

So far, conversations about relieving student pressures have focused on reducing the obsession with grades. For instance, undergraduate Friedel Wong suggested in a CNA commentary that youths rewrite their narrative of success to focus on individual strengths.

More generally, DPM Lawrence Wong had called on Singaporeans to “broaden our conception of merit beyond academic credentials”.

But here’s the elephant in the room: Could a broader definition of merit deepen youths’ anxieties about getting good jobs?

THE FIGHT TO STAND OUT

As a principle, there is no question that a broader definition of merit is what we should aspire to. It would enable employers to look beyond grades in identifying and cultivating talent.

Yet if not managed well, this could merely translate into job seekers feeling pressured to check more boxes to differentiate themselves in a competitive job market.

Consider how undergraduates pursue a specific degree to get their desired job. But because most of their competitors will have the same degree, what will help them stand out from the crowd is everything besides that degree.

After all, when employers broaden their search for the perfect candidate beyond academic achievement, so too must candidates broaden their CVs.

When applicants for a single job position all have good grades, it will be their internship experiences, personal projects, overseas stints, leadership credentials, volunteering experiences, co-curricular activities, networking skills and the like that help them stand out.

The recognition of this fact is trickling down to lower levels of the education system. For instance, since 2021, Raffles Institution has designated Wednesday as a “gap day” for its Year 5 and 6 students to partake in co-curricular activities, volunteer work, enrichment lessons, or just rest and recharge.

Further downstream, the industry for enrichment activities from sports to arts continues to grow. In “This Is What Inequality Looks Like”, sociologist Teo You Yenn describes some of these as “essentially insurance policies”, providing privileged students with other ways to get into their desired schools besides academics. 

If mismanaged, “broadening our conception of merit” may end up putting more stress on students to become well-rounded candidates.

MANAGING A BROADER MERITOCRACY

So how can we avoid worsening the arms race for good jobs?

First, employers need to give candidates more opportunities to demonstrate their merit – rather than filter them out based on their CVs.

For instance, British newspaper The Economist has requested prospective interns send in their CV, a cover letter and an original unpublished article. The hiring team would read the article first, and only if it is good will they then look at the applicant’s CV.

Such an approach gives applicants a fair opportunity to demonstrate their ability before their paper qualifications are considered.

Second, institutes of higher learning could follow the lead of Raffles Institution and designate one gap day a week. Already stressed out by grades, many tertiary students have little room in their packed schedules for extra-curricular activities.

A gap day can help them channel their time and energies more efficiently, which can benefit their mental health if they choose to do something they genuinely enjoy, or simply to rest.

Third, trade unions and business associations can play a decisive role in mentoring students in the search for their first job. Their professionals can give students personalised advice on the necessary skills and aptitudes of their desired careers, and connect them to relevant work opportunities.

By facilitating larger-scale and more accessible mentorship programmes, businesses will also be developing potential talent for themselves.

The road to a more diverse meritocracy will not always be smooth. But with employers and institutes of higher learning playing their part to manage that transition, young job seekers can traverse that road much more easily.

They will be assured that this path is the right one – not an obstacle course they need to clear just to secure a job.

Ng Chia Wee is a final-year undergraduate at the National University of Singapore’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics Programme.

Source: CNA/el

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