5 February 2023

Graduated, unemployed: who to blame?


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By: Dr. Diana Abdul Wahab

A couple of decades ago, a university degree meant a guaranteed path to a well-paid, stable career. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case – graduate unemployment is no longer even news. Unemployment among recent graduates has risen from 86,534 graduates in 2010 to 170,105 in 2018. Over the years the problem snowballs because fresh graduates enter a labor market crowded with the previous year’s unemployed graduates. What is more tragic, employers would pick the fresh graduates instead of graduates from last year who had had about a year of the unemployment spell. This is an important issue because after years of investing time and money, once graduated our youth are burdened with loan re-payment and other costs related to starting a new life. In the special case of Malaysia, the time of finishing study also goes together with getting married and starting a family within a few years later.

The expansion of higher education not only enhances economies, but it also broadens the mind and nurtures critical thinking. However, the national goal to increase the rate of participation in higher education for the expansion of society brings with it the problem of graduate unemployment. The proliferation of the number of graduates being produced is not tally with the number that the job market could absorb, making it hard for graduates to find a job. With a large supply of graduates, employers can be picky and it is often the case where graduates were pushed down to take up non-graduate jobs, which then makes it more difficult for the non-graduates to find a job until eventually they are forced into unemployment. The overall system results in a huge skill wastage and inefficient investment. The question remains, should we continue to expand the participation rate in universities? Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is a good example of an alternative door to employment which provides practical training in technical and vocational fields.

person sitting on stack of books while reading
Unemployed graduates make a significant portion of the unemployment sector (Pics by Unsplash)

Apart from their main role as generators of knowledge and providers of significant contributions to the civil society, universities also play an important role in equipping graduates with viable skills for high-level jobs. We can’t rely on universities to produce custom-made graduates for every specific industry. Instead, universities have played their role in harnessing general soft skills such as teamwork skills in working together to complete assignment reports, analytical skills through exams and tests depending on the courses, communication skills when presenting ideas in group projects, and thinking skills through various evaluation activities. Industrial training, on the other hand, has been providing working experience and many interns were offered jobs immediately after finishing their internship. It is evident from the feedback from a large majority of graduates that industrial training has benefited the graduates. We do acknowledge many issues related to the ineffectiveness of internship but overall, the advantages surpassed the disadvantages of industrial training in terms of harnessing various working skills. What is more important, however, is that employers should provide on-the-job training specific to the industry needs. More employers should consider adopting job training through providing a framework and get their more senior experts to fine-tune the knowledge and abilities of new workers.

Nonetheless, employers are continually voicing their disappointment that many graduates could not demonstrate basic skills, particularly in communication and the ability to speak in English. University graduates are said to be lacking in the ability to communicate well particularly in English, ability to work effectively with others, analytical skills, decision-making skills, solving a problem, and working professionally and ethically. Their upbringing and school experiences have largely shaped their competence level. Women are worse because they were rarely been chosen to lead an assignment group. In general, students who come from a rural area with low family income and parental education are also found to be lacking in communication skills. Despite impressive policy regulation in education, it is still apparent that pupils are still expected to memorize grammar instead of practicing English, write down science processes instead of conduct physical experiments and telling stories about it, copy down from whiteboards instead of presenting their ideas and understanding, absorbing facts instead of practice critical thinking. Much have been done in the policy reform plans but the implementations are still in question.

Group activities develop an individual’s soft skills for the future (Pics by Unsplash)

Universities have embedded soft skills development in their curriculum but we cannot expect that it should work perfectly, considering lecturers meet their students in large classes of 200 – 300 or even more students, for a few hours a week, where the opportunity to develop various sets of soft skills are very limited. Despite the low face-to-face learning time, initiatives such as engaging students in problem-based learning and provide exposure to real-life data and problems have been practiced quite widely.

The country’s reliance on low-skilled foreign workers has also contributed to increasing unemployment. Companies who can obtain low skilled workers very easily at a cheap cost then blame it on the graduates who are not willing to take up dirty jobs. This is not true because we know a lot of Malaysians workers are willing to commute to our neighbor country to work in 3D jobs because of more attractive pay. The real problem in the difficulties of finding workers in our 3D sector is because the wages offered are too low while the inequality between CEO-workers is increasing.

Graduate unemployment is still an important issue. We should not blame the graduates for their lack of communication skills if we nurture them in a certain environment, one where they were not trained to communicate well. The industry, on the other hand, should play a bigger role by providing on-the-job training and create more collaboration with universities. Our graduates are not lazy, as evident by many of them are willing to participate in the gig economy. Many even took up jobs with below minimum salary. What needs to be done is that we should find the missing link between the production of graduates and the absorption in the labour market.

The author is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Business and Economics, Universiti Malaya and may be contacted at diana.abdwahab@um.edu.my