The Paper Chase

The article below is written by Ali Yaakub. Ali is a go-getter who is doing so many things he doesnt even know where to begin. He is involved in competitve debating, communication coaching, and co-founded a tech firm. Fueled by kopi cino, he pursues his interest in current affairs, technology, and financial matters.

 

It was November 2010. I was about to complete my National Service, and was having a major case of what many NSF like to call “ORD Mood”. At the time, having seriously considered my options, I decided that I should go try to look for a job instead of going back to school. Despite only having my A-Level cert, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a job right?

Wrong. Aside from a few temporary openings, almost every perm job in the classifieds required either a diploma or a degree, mostly with a few years’ experience to boot. Sure, I could find a temp job in the plethora of holiday jobs available. However, to ask for career progression in Flyer Distribution may have been a bit of a stretch for the uncle-in-charge. I was however, quite hesitant to go get a degree because at the time, I wasn’t sure how it would really benefit me aside from graduating with a piece of paper and a big loan to pay off.

This paper chase discussion has made it into the national discourse. In the recent National Day Rally speech, PM Lee called for a cultural shift among companies operating in Singapore. The call was two fold:

1. The workforce needs to develop further skills and knowledge that is relevant to career progression, while avoiding the needless paper chase.

2. Employers need to provide more active support for their workers to advance and develop their careers.

These are admirable goals which echo my own views on the matter. With the exception of pursuing a degree for the sake of the academic pursuit in and of itself, further education is useful only to the extent that it helps you do your future job better. Yet, the speech fell just short of encouraging people to stop chasing their degrees and go find some work and hands-on experience. This is the contention that I will seek to examine in this article.

Do a quick poll among any group of undergrads in Singapore, and it will quickly become apparent that they are mostly in it just so they can get a job. The question is… do people really need a degree to do their future jobs?

Before we look at the reasons why you might or might not need a degree, let us first set forth two simple job expectations which the typical university undergraduate probably aspires to.

1. Graduate Salaries
The current average graduate salary of $3,050 (source: MOM) is a possible starting point. While it is by no means what we all want to earn necessarily, we would want to examine jobs for which employers typically look for degree holders because that what we would want to earn

2. Career Progression
The jobs we are talking about should have career advancement opportunities leading to more complex tasks and responsibilities. In particular, we will work on the assumption that doing a particular job for some time will make you better at it, or prepare you for other roles.

With that done, we eliminate many of the jobs we can find in job ads both online and on the newspapers from our discussion. We are mostly talking about permanent full-time positions with prospects for the long term, whether or not its with the same company. We are also not discussing entrepreneurship or self-employment, which can be explored in a separate article.

So here, we are talking mostly about people being employed, working for a company which may be big or small. The big question that should be answered is whether someone without a degree can demonstrate the same workplace productivity and skill as someone who does not.

Why getting a degree is good/needed
There are several reasons as to why a degree can be hugely beneficial or even required when hiring. Prime among them is to acquire job specific technical skills or knowledge. Some obvious examples are in the professions such as doctors, lawyers and engineers. You definitely wouldn’t want an untrained or unlicensed doctor diagnosing you or prescribing treatments in what could possibly be a life-and-death situation.

Then there is also the soft skills aspect, where certain processes in university education teach you valuable lessons in how to communicate with people, how to work in a team, or leadership for instance. Chasing that deadline for your assignment, while still juggling a part time job and preparing for your upcoming exam would definitely teach you a few things about prioritising and time management.

Next, there is the fact that you build up strong friendships and networks in a diverse range of industries, which would be valuable for you when doing business, or when seeking information about those fields. You may well end up working with a former classmate on a project, or have your company outsource certain operations to that person you happened to meet in your CCA group.

Finally, there is the fact that having a degree in itself is a demonstration of capability. More than just being a subject matter expert on whichever field you may have chosen, a degree holder has shown his/her ability to learn that subject, and the intellectual capacity to handle complex topics and solve any problems related to them. Employers value this equally, if not more, than the subject matter knowledge you actually picked up. This could be a reason why several jobs simply require “a good degree in any discipline”, rather than specifying a specific discipline.

These are excellent reasons to explain why someone with a university degree would be far more productive at work and can do much more than someone who does not. However, if we do indeed go to university to get each of these benefits, what’s to stop us from heading straight to work if we had some other way to get these benefits or demonstrate these qualities? It is not that these skills wouldn’t be useful to you when you start work. Rather, it is whether a university education is the sole and exclusive source of these skills. Suppose you could get each of these key benefits of a university education without actually going to (or paying for) university, wouldn’t that be great?

Why you wouldn’t need a degree
I’m going to try going out on a limb to tackle each of these, and say that for the majority of jobs, you probably wouldn’t need a degree to do the job, or to do it well.

To start, it’s not difficult to learn things on the job. Many companies invest in comprehensive training programmes for their fresh hires just so that they can perform their tasks to the exact requirements of the company. This is something that no amount of university education can teach you simply because it is very specific to various company requirements.

You could even argue that the assumed knowledge a degree holder believes he/she has may stop him/her from going into the job to explore other possible solutions or methods that school didn’t teach you. Knowledge on how to solve a particular problem can itself be a barrier to other, possibly better ways of solving the problem. In fact, it is precisely this sort of thinking that has put many companies ahead of their competitors.

Sure, there are some exceptions where you do need specific and relevant knowledge, for example in the professions mentioned earlier. But unless you are going to work in such a profession, there is little reason to get a degree in terms of getting technical know-how. Even so, some professions require that you undergo a mandatory apprenticeship or training, for example in law or accountancy. This demonstrates that even in professions where you require highly specialised knowledge, many skills and competencies are developed on the job rather than in the classroom.

Next, there is the fact that work experience is a superior means of developing soft skills. While it is great that school provides you with a “safe environment” for personal development and to explore your interests, it is an entirely different set of experiences from the ones you will experience at work. It’s not that CCAs and other forms of school involvement aren’t great, because they are, but if you were doing it primarily to get experience and build soft skills, you could really be much better off just doing that at work.

The work environment where you have to get down and dirty to chase deadlines and targets, work late, deal with annoying colleagues, and at the same time make a good impression on your boss poses a much greater challenge and builds character much better than having to deal with your mods or your active involvement in student activities (which by the way, I hope many undergrads are doing since you have already chosen that path). The reason so many employers look for work experience is precisely because it is such a world of difference compared to studying.

Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means suggesting that getting degrees are completely useless or suggesting that everyone stop going to university. I have clarified earlier that there are many professions in which particular knowledge on specialised topics is needed. Yet this is not the case for a majority of jobs out there. And even if you could pick up all these wonderful skills at school, the same 3-4 years at work could definitely yield the same result, without a fat loan to pay off, and instead getting you a few years work experience and perhaps a couple of year-end bonuses to boot.

The paper chase has evolved to a point where both employers and employees have forgotten the real reason for getting an education or getting qualified. I find it highly pretentious that some think that having a degree automatically ‘puts them a cut above the rest’, or that it somehow demonstrates that they are definitely better and more capable than someone who does not have one. It has bred a culture where people pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege to wear that BSc or BA label simply for recognition, and further feeds the ‘kiasu’ parent culture that is prevalent in Singapore today.

Because of their perceived capability, employers consequently reserve the top jobs for degree holders. This is increasingly the case for jobs on the middle and lower rungs as well, especially with education inflation escalating to the point that non-degree holders could make up a minority of those entering the workforce each year. As of 2010, 46.5% of non-students aged 25 to 34 are university degree holders (source: Singstat), a figure that I think may exceed 50% by the next census in 2015.

Career success further builds the impression that you need a degree to ‘succeed’, and the cycle goes on. In the process many capable people are overlooked simply because they did not get the opportunity to pursue a university education, or for various other reasons. Yet, in reality, there are many career opportunities that do not require degrees, and many more that currently ask for degrees while not necessarily requiring them.

It will not be easy to move away from this paper chase culture. To begin with, undergraduates and anyone intending to pursue a degree should do it with a clear and specific purpose. People should know what they are studying, why they are studying it, and what to do with the knowledge. At the same time, employers too need to open the doors to sub-university applicants to allow for career development from a younger age, possibly concurrent to further education should it be needed. A possible model to follow would be the Swiss model, where about two thirds of students do apprenticeships, working while completing a professional certification. It has been highly successful in closing the gap between industry and academia.

There’s plenty of better things to do and learn. Let’s stop our paper chase.

 

 

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