Two years ago, when the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) surveyed 15-year-olds around the world on their degree aspirations, Singapore had, by far, the highest proportion wanting to go to university.
The hankering after a degree is understandable, as research around the world has shown that those with university degrees command a premium in the marketplace.
Another OECD survey released in 2017 revealed that Singapore showed the biggest proportionate jump in wages to go with the rise in the number of years spent on studies among the 34 economies surveyed in the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (Piaac).
Every additional three years of education translates into more than a 30 per cent increase in wages in Singapore. For countries such as the United States, the comparable figure is around 20 per cent, while the OECD average is a wage hike of less than 15 per cent.
Also, the yearly employment survey figures released by the universities here show that their graduates have higher starting salaries than polytechnic graduates, and the gap has widened over the years.
But experts warn that just because past job trends show that graduates have found it easier to land jobs and tended to earn more does not mean that this will be the case in the future.
Increasingly, a degree scroll will not be enough.
Social economists Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton, who wrote the book, The Global Auction: The Broken Promises Of Education, Jobs And Incomes, have argued that the conventional thinking that a degree equals higher earnings does not hold any more.
They say that employees may want to earn higher wages, but companies wanting to maximise profits aim to lower their labour costs. So, they will go where they can find workers with the skills they need but who are prepared to accept more modest wages.
This has been made possible by several trends, including the massification of higher education. There is an explosion in the supply of university-educated workers in both affluent and emerging economies.
About The Big Quiz
On Mondays, for 12 weeks until July 27 in the Opinion section, this paper's journalists will address burning questions, offering unique Singaporean perspectives on complex issues.
The primers are part of the outreach of The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz, or The Big Quiz, which aims to promote an understanding of local and global issues among pre-university students.
The primers will broach contemporary issues such as the arts in the digital age and journalism in the age of disinformation.
Other issues include the rise and future of e-sports and an examination of how user-centric design and data-driven decision-making are changing the way non-profit organisations reach out to the public.
Each primer topic will give a local perspective to help students draw links back to the issues' implications for Singaporeans.
For the third year, The Big Quiz will be online, allowing all pre-university students to take part in the current affairs competition, this time over six online quiz rounds - on March 30, April 13 and 27, May 11 and July 13 and 27.
The online quizzes are based on the primer topics and will be available for two weeks from the start date of each quiz.
This nationwide event is jointly organised by The Straits Times and the Ministry of Education.
Take China, for example. In 2010, there were about 100 million graduates in the workforce. This year, the figure is expected to rise to 200 million. And similar dramatic growth in university enrolment is evident in India.
This means many of the jobs for which a graduate in a developed nation expected to be paid well can simply be routed, much cheaper, to China or India.
The authors also warn of other trends such as Digital Taylorism, brought on by advancement in technologies, including artificial intelligence, which allows white-collar work to be broken down, standardised and computerised such that it can be delivered by lower-skilled but cheaper workers.
Analysing X-rays, drawing up legal contracts and processing tax returns are examples of jobs that have been hit by this trend.
Even bank jobs are not protected. There are already "financial services factories", as banks and insurance companies continue to break down tasks into a series of procedures that can be digitalised.
So, what is it that individuals in places such as Singapore can do to swim, and not sink, in such an environment? Job experts stress that what all this means is that educational institutions and school leavers seeking further education should focus on building relevant knowledge and skills, not chasing qualifications.
Although this advice is repeated often, it's not being heeded, says OECD's education and skills chief Andreas Schleicher.
He says OECD's survey of adult skills has shown that having university degrees does not equate to higher-level skills.
The survey - Piaac - has shown that there is an overlap in the skills of high-school graduates and university graduates.
Japanese high-school graduates, for example, have better literacy and numeracy skills than university graduates in many other countries.
Dr Schleicher and other job experts also point out that degrees signal what a student did in the past. They don't necessarily show what that person can do today.
Much of the knowledge and technical skills acquired through degrees can become obsolete quickly in this fast-changing world.
But the single, most important takeaway from OECD and other analyses is that the knowledge economy no longer pays graduates for what they know.
As Dr Schleicher says: "Google knows everything these days. The knowledge economy pays you for what you can do with what you know. Success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge to novel situations."
There is, of course, much research and advice being given out on the technical and people skills required to land jobs and thrive in them.
Going by the application rate for university courses such as programming, data analytics and user design experience, school leavers are well versed with the technical skills most sought after by employers.
Not enough attention, though, is being paid to the "soft skills" that many employers are also seeking. Applicants are now required to be adaptable, able to work in multicultural teams and capable of communicating effectively.
These are the skills which will enable an individual to not just land a job in the post-pandemic world, but also thrive in it.
And as the higher education landscape becomes more diversified, experts even suggest looking outside of the four-year degree route to prepare for careers.
Learning is already being done in many different places and many different ways, online and offline.
There are MOOCs (massive open online courses), microcredentials, industry certifications, work-study and apprenticeship programmes and coding schools, like Holberton and 42.
Increasingly, employers will not be looking at just degrees, but also at certifications, badges and various other forms of skills assessment. It's already happening in some fields, such as computing, with tech companies.
Many also believe that the future lies not with degrees, but with microcredentials - a certification indicating competency in a specific skill.
The advice to school leavers is: "Consider which pathway best suits you and will enable you to develop the right skills to access the career you want."
And the advice to those heading into the post-pandemic job market: "Even after you land a job, keep learning while earning. That's the only way to thrive in the uncertain changing world."
So, a degree is, at best, just a stop along the way in your learning journey.
10 most important job skills in demand by employers
1. DATA LITERACY
The ability to derive meaningful information from data - this has become an important asset to have.
2. CRITICAL THINKING
Critical thinking skills allow you to analyse a situation and find workable solutions.
Technical skills will be required by employees doing just about every job since digital tools are becoming commonplace.
Artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, virtual and augmented reality, robotics, blockchain and more will become a part of all workers' everyday experience, whether the workplace is a factory or a law firm.
So, not only do people need to be comfortable around these tools, they will also need to develop skills to work with them.
4. ADAPTABILITY AND FLEXIBILITY
All businesses face the challenge of keeping up with the breakneck speed of technological and other changes. This means employers see adaptability - being able to rapidly learn new skills and behaviours in response to changing circumstances - as an essential work skill.
5. CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION
While creativity is the ability to produce new and unique ideas, innovation is the implementation of that creativity - that is, the introduction of a new idea, solution, process or product. Regardless of how many machines work beside us, humans are still better at creativity. Companies are always looking for workers who are able to invent, imagine something new and dream up a better tomorrow.
6. EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
An area where humans have the edge on machines is with emotional intelligence - our ability to be aware of, control and express our emotions and relate to the emotions of others.
7. CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE AND DIVERSITY
Organisations are increasingly diverse, and effective employees must be able to respect differences and work with people of a different race, religion, age, gender or sexual orientation. This is important as businesses are increasingly operating across international boundaries.
8. LEADERSHIP SKILLS
If you think leadership is a soft skill that only senior management needs to possess and cultivate, think again.
In today's fast-moving business world with flatter hierarchies, every professional needs good leadership skills.
9. JUDGMENT AND COMPLEX DECISION-MAKING
The skill of complex decision-making is needed where there is no one obvious right solution to a problem, but multiple solutions that can lead down multiple paths.
Those with this critical skill are able to identify key factors which will affect the outcome of a decision.
They are able to evaluate options and establish priorities.
They are also able to anticipate outcomes and see logical consequences before arriving at a solution.
10. COLLABORATION AND TEAM WORKING SKILLS
The ability to work with a group of people to achieve a shared goal or outcome in an effective way is very much in demand by organisations.
Sign up for our daily updates here and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2020, with the headline 'It is skills that will count in the post-pandemic world of work'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.