The Class of 2020: Adapting to a New Normal amidst COVID-19
By Nicolette Chua, Associate Editor
Midway into 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has already shaken up the global economy at an unprecedented scale and nature, whereby the world is projected to experience its worst recession since the Great Depression. Globally, this year’s graduating cohort has not been spared from upended plans — these run the gamut from graduation ceremonies being cancelled or turned into virtual events, to rescinded job offers.
More than ever, around 16,000 Singaporean and Permanent Resident graduates from the Class of 2020 face challenging labour market conditions and greater uncertainty ahead.
The Convergence spoke to 8 graduates who shared how the COVID-19 situation has impacted their job search and how they are adapting to this “new normal”.
Woes of give-and-take in job hunting
A majority of graduates whom The Convergence spoke to described the immense challenges they faced in their job search. The industries in which these graduates desire to enter into have also been affected in varying degrees.
Industries like the tourism and hospitality sector have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19. Since March, inbound and outbound travel has been halted, while attractions and entertainment venues remain closed during the circuit breaker period, up to June 1. Overall, tourist arrivals for the month of March have also seen an 85 per cent year-on-year drop, based on statistics by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB).
For graduates who aspire to enter the tourism or hospitality sector, like Ms Shanice Lee and Ms Jayley Low, their hopes of doing so in this period are slim.
23-year-old Ms Lee, a Business (Marketing) major at Singapore Management University (SMU) said, “Many companies have stopped hiring, and I have now expanded my options to look beyond that industry. As time goes by, I feel like I am slowly trading off what I initially was looking for with what I could apply for with the limited options available.”
Ms Low, 23, a Communications and New Media major from the National University of Singapore (NUS), shared similar challenges in her job search.
“With the market being so bad and chances of being hired [in the tourism sector] reduced, I decided not to take the approach of mass-sending resumes, but rather to just focus on school and enjoy my last semester of being a student,” Low said.
Given the slowdown of the tourism sector, Low is now considering branching out to other industries, such as healthcare. “I felt really inspired by the medical frontline workers and have recently been thinking how I can contribute to their efforts — though this is all still a work in progress,” she said.
Employers “ghosting” in an uncertain time
Beyond the tourism and hospitality sector, the COVID-19 outbreak has also taken a toll on other industries. Some companies have stopped recruiting fresh graduates in this period, which is typically peak hiring season in other years. Job openings in less-affected sectors have also appeared to dry up, according to graduates.
Mr Ivan Lieu, an NUS Quantitative Finance student, was looking forward to applying for a graduate programme offered by a company he had been deeply interested in. However, the 25-year-old was notified that the company had decided to freeze recruitment due to the evolving COVID-19 situation.
Lieu, who has since applied to more than 15 jobs in the finance sector, was encouraged to know that there are still several openings within the sector. That said, not all are aligned with his intended industry of choice. Job openings in his field have been “quite limited as it is predominantly for roles that are more tech-related,” Lieuobserved, “These days, I also hardly see banks’ recruitment listings on job portals too.”
Fellow Sociology graduate Ms Cheah Cayyin, 23, faced a similar predicament. Even though Cheah had applied for more than 30 positions, she only received fewer than 5 replies from employers.
“Most companies had ghosted me or at best showed 'unsuccessful' on the portal after I applied,” she said.
Given how few employers have gotten back to their prospective applicants, graduates left in the dark are now seeking other options that enable them to regain a semblance of stability in this uncertain period.
A couple of graduates whom The Convergence spoke to are considering undertaking the SGUnited Traineeships program. The Government has recently announced that it would set aside $100 million to fund 8,000 paid traineeships, which are offered to fresh graduates from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), polytechnics, and universities.
In line with the SGUnited Traineeships programme, NUS is one of the autonomous universities which has launched traineeship opportunities of its own. Under its Resilience and Growth initiative, students are eligible to apply for 200 full-time salaried positions and 800 traineeships in four tracks — education, research, entrepreneurship, and executive and professional.
A graduate from NUS Political Science, who wishes to remain anonymous, has expressed interest in applying for the traineeship opportunities, as part of his plans to take a gap year to work before pursuing postgraduate studies.
“The only difference is I have fewer options to choose from than I would have previously imagined,” he said.
Similarly, Lieu mentioned that he will consider looking at the traineeship positions offered should he be unable to find a job. Keeping an open mind when looking for jobs during this difficult time, Lieu also said that it is important not to “be too fixated in looking for one that ticks everything off” his checklist.
“This is so that I can at least improve on my skills and experience,” he said.
A silver lining in the COVID-19 cloud
On the flip side, several interviewees that The Convergence has spoken to have successfully found jobs upon graduation. Nonetheless, they conceded that the COVID-19 outbreak had prolonged the application and interview processes.
Ms Cheah said she initially felt anxious about the job-hunting process when COVID-19 first started, “We all knew for sure that the economy was going to be even worse than it already was.”
Despite knowing that there were limited entry-level vacancies in this trying time, Cheah was encouraged by others’ reassurances to persevere in her job search.
“I think I've been mentally prepared by the stories my seniors have shared on how challenging the job hunt is in general,” she said.
After a gruelling five-month search, Cheah recently landed a role in her industry of choice within the civil service.
That said, she acknowledged that “there was just quite a bit of delay in the application and interviewing processes because of all the Work-from-Home (WFH) changes.” Since April 7, most companies have complied with the Government’s advisory to convert to Work-from-Home arrangements.
Another interviewee who ended his job search on a positive note was 24-year-old Mr Evan James Teoh, an Accountancy graduate from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Recounting his job-hunting experience, Teoh described it as “blessed” and he felt “very fortunate to [have] a standing job offer amidst these tough times.”
“I was offered a position at the firm I interned at as part of my compulsory professional attachment last summer. They recently emailed me saying that they would update me on my starting date, so that is good news,” said Teoh.
On top of the existing job-hunting challenges that graduating cohorts typically face, the COVID-19 situation has also drastically transformed the nature of work across the various industries that these graduates will be entering into.
A Ministry of Education (MOE) Teaching Scholar, who wishes to remain anonymous, weighed in on the flurry of changes within the education sector. Since early April, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has shifted primary, secondary, pre-university and university students to full Home-based Learning (HBL) arrangements.
“As I was in my teaching practicum during that period of time, it meant that I got a unique experience of conducting lessons through online platforms,” said the NTU National Institute of Education (NIE) graduate.
In an unprecedented move, MOE had also brought forward the June Holidays to May 5, with lessons resuming next month instead.
“As a soon-to-be employee, my graduation plans may be shortened in view of work possibly beginning a month earlier following the shift in June holidays to May holidays,” said the scholar. At the time of the interview, she was still awaiting further information from the Ministry on her future work arrangements.
For the Class of 2020, being battered by the challenging labour market conditions has not been the way they intended to welcome the first milestone of their professional lives.
Despite stopgap measures by the Government and universities to provide graduates opportunities for upskilling and gainful employment, how they will fare in the longer-term remains uncertain. This is compounded by the “significant uncertainty” over how long and intense the economic downturn will be, as reported by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).
Even for the fortunate ones who have found employment, COVID-19 will not spare industries from being transformed through restructuring and a change in working arrangements.
The only thing that remains certain is the grim news that Singapore will enter into a recession this year.
Graduates are palpably worried, as summed up in one of the interviewees’ remarks, “Are there any opportunities out there for us to progress? Is the financial world-changing, and is my degree still relevant in this dynamic post-COVID 19 world?”
The Class of 2020 must brace themselves for a difficult road ahead.
Nicolette Chua is a final-year Political Science student and an Associate Commentary Editor for The Convergence. She firmly believes in the power of youths' voices in steering national conversations on social issues and seeks to marry this conviction with her love for writing and current affairs. In her free time, Nicolette can be found with a cup of Teh C in hand while keeping herself updated on dank memes.