Why Singapore graduates aren't getting the right jobs

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A university degree may no longer be the golden ticket to an ideal job in Singapore amid a growing pool of degree holders and fast-changing economy.

Singapore's unemployment rate stood at 2 percent in the April-June period, well below the 6 percent global average for 2013 as calculated by the International Labor Organization, but recent statistics show rising underemployment in the Southeast Asian city-state.

In 2013, 2.3 percent of graduates were underemployed – highly skilled workers engaged in low-paying or low-skilled positions or that could only find part-time jobs – a tick higher from 2.2 percent in 2012, according to the Ministry of Manpower. The government analyzed five qualification levels; degree holders were the group in which underemployment increased.

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Shifting dynamics

Retrenched middle-aged degree holders that face difficulty in re-employment are at the heart of underemployment, according to Hui Weng Tat, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Policy, but underemployment among graduates is on the rise due to a culmination of factors.

Changes in Singapore's economy are spawning increasingly specialized roles that often require work experience or cross-cultural communication, business partnering, and problem solving skills that may not be taught in school, making it harder for entry-level graduates to find work.

"Wages in Singapore are high and companies often look to reduce cost by outsourcing low-added value roles. Unfortunately, this means that roles for graduates can be hard to come by as Singapore becomes more of an executive hub," Emmanuel White, regional director of Hudson Singapore, told CNBC via email.

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Meanwhile, the growing number of degree holders in Singapore increases competition for jobs. Among Singaporean residents aged 25-34 years, 51.1 percent had a university education in 2013 compared with 26.1 percent in 2000, according to Singapore's department of statistics.

"As a result, some graduates take a longer time to find full-time employment and take part-time or temporary roles in the interim," Mark Hall, vice president and country general manager at Kelly Services told CNBC.

Greater emphasis on personal fulfillment among the younger generation is another factor.

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"Many candidates, especially at the graduate level, are looking for more than just monetary benefits these days and this means they are more selective about the kind of company or even industry that they consider," Kelly Services' Hall said. "Graduates [often] enjoy trying different roles and getting a variety of work experience before making a decision on their eventual career path."

Alan See, a 26-year-old with a bachelor's degree in English literature, is one example. He's currently interning at a local advertising firm and hopes the half-year stint results in a full-time job.

"The hours are long and I'm only paid $500 a month, but I'm having fun," he said. "I feel linguistically challenged every day and hope this can be my stepping stone into advertising,"

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Cause for concern?

Shifting employment trends are a concern for the government. In March, Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin cautioned that a graduate glut could result in "overeducated and underemployed" workers, as seen in South Korea and Taiwan.

In August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the need for a "cultural shift" in employment practices and mindsets to focus on industrial-related skills over qualifications.

However, recent underemployment data don't necessarily spell bad news for Singapore's drive to boost productivity: "The data just show a slight change," Professor Hui said. "I wouldn't be too concerned."