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Who's to blame for graduate unemployment?

The proliferation of the number of graduates being produced does not tally with the number that the job market can absorb, making it hard for graduates to find a job.

Diana Abdul Wahab
4 minute read

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 labour market crowded with the previous year’s unemployed graduates. 

What is more tragic, employers will pick the fresh graduates instead of the graduates from the last year who have spent about a year being unemployed. 

This is an important issue because, after years of investing time and money, once graduated, our youth are burdened with loan repayments and other costs related to starting a new life. In the special case of Malaysia, the time of finishing studies also goes together with getting married and starting a family within a few years.

The expansion of higher education not only enhances economies, 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 does not tally with the number that the job market can 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 are pushed down to take up non-graduate jobs, which makes it more difficult for 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.

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 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, provides working experience and many interns are offered jobs immediately after finishing their internships. It is evident from the feedback from a large majority of graduates that industrial training has benefited them. 

We acknowledge many issues related to the ineffectiveness of internships, but overall, the advantages surpass the disadvantages of industrial training in terms of harnessing 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 by providing a framework and getting their more senior experts to fine-tune the knowledge and abilities of new workers.

 Nonetheless, employers continually voice their disappointment that many graduates cannot 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, their ability to work effectively with others, their analytical skills, decision-making skills, problem solving skills, and ability to work professionally and ethically. 

Their upbringing and school experiences have largely shaped their competence level. Women are worse because they are rarely chosen to lead assignment groups. In general, students who come from rural areas 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 expected to memorise grammar instead of practising English, write down science processes instead of conducting physical experiments and telling stories about it, copy down from whiteboards instead of presenting their ideas and understanding, and absorb facts instead of practising critical thinking. Much has been done in terms of policy reform plans but the implementation remains in question.

 Universities have embedded soft skills development in their curriculum but we cannot expect this to work perfectly, considering that lecturers meet their students in large classes of 200-300 or even more, for a few hours a week, where the opportunity to develop soft skills is limited.

Despite the low face-to-face learning time, initiatives such as engaging students in problem-based learning and providing exposure to real-life data and problems have been practised quite widely. 

 The country's reliance on low-skilled foreign workers has also contributed to increasing unemployment. Companies which can obtain low-skilled workers 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 neighbouring country to work in 3D jobs because of more attractive pay. The real problem in finding workers in our 3D sector is because the wages offered are too low while the inequality between CEOs and 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 are not trained to communicate well. The industry, on the other hand, should play a bigger role by providing on-the-job training and creating more opportunities for collaboration with universities. 

Our graduates are not lazy, as shown by the numbers who are willing to participate in the gig economy. Many even take up jobs with below-minimum salary. What we need to do is to find the missing link between the production of graduates and the absorption into the labour market.

Diana Abdul Wahab is a senior lecturer at Universiti Malaya's faculty of economics and administration.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.