Why are you not getting that $3.5k salary?

In Feb 2017, MOE published the Graduate Employment Survey results and this was of course quickly picked up by news outlets. For some reason, this report by the Straits Times is seeing some revived sharing (probably due to Facebook’s memory feature) and not everyone is feeling too happy about it.

To be explicitly clear, the published median salary for all university graduates is actually $3,360, but you can trust sensationalism to take the higher threshold of $3,500 reported by SMU graduates (although to be fair, I guess a round figure like that is frankly easier to talk about). It’s also worth noting that the employment rate is 80.2%, leaving 19.8% currently unemployed — and we aren’t even considering the many who leave that first job after ≤1 year and are currently looking. Given this rate, you have at least (conservatively speaking) 40.1% of employed graduates taking below the median salary as published by the GES.

So you get 40.1% of your employed graduate workforce feeling quite bummed that they aren’t getting the median salary, and the unemployed 19.8% of graduates seeking that figure or higher, despite knowing that doctors/lawyers/accountants/government scholars sit on the same spectrum and effectively bump the median up by a few notches.

Are you in the 40.1% of employed graduates?

Don’t be bummed. You’re (likely — hopefully) on the right track. Read on.

Are you in the 19.8%, and still seeking that elusive ‘El Dorado’?

If you’re still not on your first job, spoiler alert: Your $3.5k starting salary will not come by itself. Here's why.

Higher Education is a Commodity of Diminishing Returns

In 1980, university graduates made up 2.7% of residents in Singapore. Having a degree in the 80s was a tremendous advantage, basically assuring that you get a position most rewarding or desired. In the last census taking education statistics (2016), the number went up to 29.1%. That’s almost one-third of the population, which cuts your advantage by almost 11x. And it’s only going to diminish further: In a bid to stand out, people just go for higher education, degree after degree. Where a diploma would suffice in the 90s to help one get a good job, a Master’s degree takes its place today as the de facto base-level education advantage. At some point in the near future (or we may have well arrived already), Master’s degrees would become commonplace and only PhD researchers stand an education advantage. Cheap degrees and mills have saturated the ‘educated’ workforce, effectively removing all forms of higher standing.

Because degrees are so easy to get now, Singapore has become a region favourite to pursue higher education. Students from all over come to study for a degree at some of the best institutions in Asia, or if they fail to enrol, pursue distance-learning and get a degree conferred by an institution from the other side of the world. These students are smart, hardworking, driven, hungry for success, and they are ready to work for less. If your degree is the same as theirs, but they cost less and maybe even work harder, this makes a bad situation even worse.

On top of all that, having a degree does not assure your future employer that you are a quality hire. The reason that degrees still hold some form of clout in the hiring process is simply that hirers and managers use your education as a heuristic for screening. For example: If you possess a degree conferred by Harvard University, it matters (comparatively) very little whether you have learnt anything at Harvard when you consider the shorthand conclusion of “if you are good enough to pass selection at Harvard, you are good enough for me.” Does that mean you’re a solid employee? Not automatically. Are more companies being aware of this heuristic and consciously trying to circumvent this? Absolutely.

Not All is Lost

As a fresh (or future, or recently fresh) graduate, what then can you do? Are we (and by we I mean people like you and me who fall nicely into the middle of the bell curve; we ‘mainstreamers’) doomed to live a life of striving and mediocrity?

The good news: No, because fortunately we live in a world where cars can be tracked in space and you can contact almost anyone directly with a few clicks. This breaks down barriers and opens opportunities previously only available to the higher echelons of society and their children. The bad(?) news: It needs an extra bit of hard work.

1. Start Small

Don’t just look at the starting salary. It’s okay to start small. My first formal paycheck was for $1,200. Once your foot is in the door, you have plenty of opportunities to climb the ladder or do well enough to hop onto another ladder. I’d even go so far as to say to get an internship/apprenticeship at a company you think you will grow in. The value of the learning is worth far greater than the difference in starting salaries.

If you look at almost every success story of the hotshot achievers today you see the same ‘humble beginnings’ story: Jeff Bezos flipped patties in McDonald’s, Warren Buffett delivered newspapers, Evan Spiegel interned for Red Bull in marketing, Travis Kalanick sold knives door-to-door while Mark Cuban sold garbage bags (also door-to-door), the list goes on. It’s not about the pay, or the glamour, or even the specific daily grind. It’s about the learning. Which brings me to point 2.

2. Growth + Purpose > Image

Your number 1 priority upon graduation should always be growth. The problem with most graduates is that image becomes the thing they subconsciously weigh heaviest. They seek titles, offices with a free-flow pantry, a namecard from a big tech company, etc. This is short-term gratification at its most damaging. Seek growth in every interaction, and as you grow and speak to more people with an open mind, use every input you make to find your purpose. Embark on adventurous projects. Try your hand out at volunteering. Ignore that Instagram feed — it doesn’t feed you.

Mark Manson writes a lot about this particular topic, and he has many articles to prove his point. His most popular one has been made into a book, and although really vulgar, gets the message across effectively (note: I don’t mean to say the f-bomb = effective). It’s very aptly named The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**** — if you need some solid convincing why your concern with likes and such are actually ruining you.

3. Anticipate Skills Needed In The Future

What you know and studied in school will become obsolete in 10 years. Probably even sooner. This is why you need to up-skill or re-skill while anticipating what the future will look like. The fact that schools have largely remained the same for the past few decades is a tell-tale sign that education does not anticipate, nor can it catch up with, the future. Keep asking yourself the deep questions. For example: “If everyone says robots will take over the workforce, then what is it that robots cannot do or find extremely hard to do, and can I gain skills in that?”

When I was in between jobs, I was very concerned about what the future would hold for the work and skills I was developing given that my career experience primarily was in Learning & Development and VC. I honestly believe the landscape of Learning & Development can be very quickly disrupted by AI (the industry is a laggard behind education, so look at the trends of education disruption to anticipate what happens to L&D), and there is literally very little stopping a VC from making investment decisions based on ~90% input from an AI crunching data and basing only ~10% on empirical assessments. The conclusion I came to was that robots are still too far away from being excellent managers, relationship builders, and people motivators, so I set my sights on developing those skills. What are your future-proof skills?

4. Find Your Network

Probably the most valuable thing you can do with your time is to network. No, not the frivolous kind, but the kind that makes you feel enriched and better than before. Look for a group of like-minded people you can bounce thoughts and ideas off of. I once got into a conversation with someone on an interesting topic: Can you engineer serendipity? My hypothesis is that you can. You start off, like everyone else, increasing the funnel and attending as many events as you can. After you tire of the meaningless ones and become more savvy in choosing good events, you end up with a curated selection of events (which likely also curate their attendees). It is at this selection that you find those you would call “my people”.

In the course of my career I’ve been to tons of events and networks and communities and conferences, and have developed my own heuristic to choosing what I would attend and what I would avoid. I cannot stress this enough: You don’t network to amass contacts and acquaintances. You network to build real relationships. Much of where I am now I owe to the people who helped me, and these people I’ve met at networks (more specifically one network, Sandbox). Start somewhere, chart your funnel, and just take that leap.

5. Start A Startup

This was previously very unconventional advice, but today you find that everyone is advocating for young people to go start a startup. I’m all for it. You can google this and find a million reasons why you should start a startup so I won’t go into too much detail, but I’ll share one thing I distinctly remember talking about from when I was working at Entrepreneur First.

One problem with getting people to start is that most of these ‘smartest people in the world’ are already in research labs, or working giant salary jobs, or are snapped up by other cutting-edge exciting startups. I use a quick question to convince potential founders: What have you got to lose? If your startup succeeds, you’ve not only gained a wonderful job that you love, you’ve made a product/service that the world loves. If your startup fails, you’ve gained from the experience of starting and shutting, and this learning is more valuable in the corporate world than any learning you could’ve done in campus. If you have no urgency to get a job quickly for stability reasons (and I figure that if you are in the 19.8%, this is probably you), then start a startup.

Locus of Control

Charles Duhigg wrote recently about the relation between motivation and having a high internal locus of control. This is the innate understanding that you are in control of many things that happen in your life, and that your eventual outcome is in your own hands and not those of any other. I think this applies to everyone, but probably shows itself more apparent and urgent in fresh/recent/future graduates than any others. It’s all too easy to push the blame on external factors and call it a day. Even from the three reasons I highlighted for the diminishing value of higher education, two of them are external factors. But we need to activate in our brains the habit of second-order thinking, and that is to look beyond the immediate surface-level items and analyse the consequences and next steps beyond the first-order. Ask yourself: “What is the most immediate next step that I can take control of, that would directly influence my outcomes?”

Bonus: Seek People who want you to Succeed

Closely related to point 4 above, but I just thought I needed to go a bit deeper on this: It’s not just about exchanging namecards and following up with emails; it’s about building genuine relationships and finding people who are committed to see you succeed. There is no such thing as a ‘self-made man’, and anyone who says they are or who cannot think of who has helped them get to where they are is someone you should be extremely careful dealing with. I was blessed to have people in my life who were committed to help me succeed, and I attribute everything I have gained and learnt to their generosity and willingness to teach and share. Like Kingmakers, these people have made moves and connections to elevate me to where I am today, with no selfish or self-focused intent. It is my hope that you find your Kingmakers, and once you do, make sure it’s a two-way street of reciprocity and mutual respect.

If this piece speaks to you, or if you are in a position where you want to start small, start up, or start finding your kingmakers, feel free to reach out to me. (P.S. When you do, please say it’s because you read my piece so I don’t think you’re one of the randoms.)

(Timothy Low is the Chief Operating Officer of Halogen Foundation, a youth development non-profit organisation focusing on building young leaders and entrepreneurs. Prior to this, he founded a training consultancy, tenured as Entrepreneur-in-Residence in an L&D firm, and led an accelerator-VC programme for deep-tech startups. Outside of work, Tim is involved with communities making real impact, including Sandbox, WEF Global Shapers, Kairos Society, +Acumen Impact Circle, and volunteers as a youth leader in his church. This post also appeared on LinkedIn and Medium.)