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  • Valerie Fang

Commentary: First Salary after Uni…. Where do we stand?

The 2022 Graduate Employment Survey has been released recently by the Ministry of Education, and it has gained a lot of attention. News sites interpreted the data in various ways, with The Straits Times highlighting the positive aspects like pay increases and Channel News Asia showing the negative aspects in unemployment rate increases amongst fresh graduates.

The increase in salary may be attributed to the resumption of activities in several fields, such as logistics and finances, as the pandemic slowly dies down. Some employers may also be more willing to offer locals a higher salary to compete for talents against other companies. This is happening especially in the ICT sector, with Singapore continuing to climb up the global value chain with advancement in the technology-related sectors. It’s all good news for us students. If entry-level salaries increase across the board, we may be able to reach our financial goals or saving plans in a shorter time! Unfortunately, pay increases are bound to be accompanied by a fierce inflation (at the highest rate since the 2008 Financial Crisis!) of goods and services, which could really dampen the positive outlook. Can our pay match up with the high cost of living? Would this mean that we should all start to demand for a higher pay?

On the even-less-bright side, our rate of employment seemed to have decreased overall as university students (at least in the first six months). This may be attributed to people choosing to take a longer time to seek out for the ‘best’ first job or giving themselves more slack time before they start their career for the rest of their lives. The worst one scenario would be one in which people really can’t find a job despite trying…. Personally, as the survey only takes into account of graduates in a full-time position, I would also reckon that some may simply be doing part-time or even graduate internships as a transition before their full-time job begins.

Common meme for common situation

Having a closer look at the employment survey, particularly the NUS one (since we’re NUS students), you may notice a wide range of gross monthly salaries, depending on your faculty and major. Now, this is no news, because there has always been a disparity amongst the faculties, recently more prevalently between computing and arts. While there is a healthy increase of average pay across these faculties, the gap remains (actually it probably widened), blatantly proving that computing students will earn more than arts students from the get-go. There are no issues in this: students who’ve studied computing hold the necessary technical skills that are highly in demand in our contemporary society, and it is natural that their pay can be raised in order for companies to retain the ever-saturated talent pool. However, does that mean that students from other particular majors are set up to ‘lose out’ in their career?

(Not to mention that since the survey only received responses from the 74.8% of the cohort, we have no clue if the remaining percentage is doing much better or worse…)

The Trouble with Comparison

Actually, if we take a slightly wider perspective, we would see that while the gap among us exists, there is also a gap in the starting pay between Singaporean students studying in public universities and all other students studying at a tertiary level (private uni, poly and ITE). In fact, the gap is big enough for it to be matters of concern for the DPM and MOM…. So, if we were to really look at competition in terms of salary, we are doing quite relatively well!

The thing is, every individual has a different stand in how much they want to be paid and how much they think they deserved to be paid for their first full-time job. Our opinions are heavily affected by our upbringing and the surrounding environment. If you had multiple internships or had one really prestigious internship during your study, you are naturally inclined to feel like you deserve a relatively better starting position. There are also people who grew up in richer environments and now take salaries way above average, salaries high enough to support their families’ high-SES lifestyle for granted (This could be why there are people who could announce that they are seeking for a $10k starting pay…).

Conversely, there are also people who choose their job based on non-money related factors, such as passion. It may not pay as well, but they would be much happier working. Or those who are still figuring out personal finances and simply assume that the median pay seems to be a very good starting point for uni students already, because it is such an increase from our standard measly internship pay of $1k. The last one sounds extra personal because that’s me! I didn’t realise that my expected pay is so much lower than my friends’ ones until it was brought up randomly one day. I was not aware of the increase in median pay until my friends (of the same faculty) began stating that they are aiming for $4-4.5k as a starting salary. Heck, I felt a bit FOMO for only realising now that I may actually deserve to be paid more. Every experience and conversations we have in our lives contribute to our thoughts and feelings, and this in time becomes a part of our identity. There is no distinctive right or wrong to any point-of-view since we go through different things in life.

With all that said, starting pay is certainly not the sole factor to consider for your first job. Of course, it is very beneficial if you have immediate financial needs or are saving up for a big purchase. However, a job also entails other factors, such as medical benefits, bonuses, and opportunities for growth and advancement. One can choose a first job that is relatively less well-paid if it meant that the company can provide space for career advancement in the near future. It may even be more financially beneficial in the long run. At the end of the day, we all start somewhere, and the only comparison necessary is when you compare against your past self. See how far or little you’ve gone and work towards where you want to be, at a pace you decide for yourself. Starting pay should not be something that completely dictates where you first work at.

To end this commentary, I would like to recommend a TedTalk that I saw on YouTube by chance. The talk was hosted by Sharon Belden Castonguay, a psychologist and career counsellor in Stamford University. She encourages people to understand themselves and solidify their identity (their personal story) first before delving into their career. As technological advancement will bring constant changes to our future job prospects, it is only with a strong understanding of ourselves and our potential that we can adapt and navigate through new fields, when the time comes.

Source: NUS Facebook (I’d like to imagine that the mascot is saying, “Students don’t be scared! You’re doing fine right now!”.)

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