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University Student Survey

The Age of High Unemployment: Students, Are You Ready?


The Age of High Unemployment: Students, Are You Ready?


With more and more people holding higher degrees, and university educations holding less value in the marketplace, new college grads face a harsh labor environment. Are they prepared for the challenges?



The Age of High Unemployment: Students, Are You Ready?

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 410 )

Taiwan's unemployment rate usually peaks in July and August when new school graduates enter the labor market and comes down again when they have found jobs. But this year the unemployment rate has kept creeping upward, from 3.8 percent at the beginning of this year to the current 4.27 percent.

On the heels of the financial crisis in the United States, consumption in Taiwan's major export market began to shrink markedly. Exports from Taiwan and other Asian countries can be expected to decline, which in return will cost jobs.

Wang Pai-rong, vice president of Kuozui Motors, looks back to 2005 with a certain nostalgia. In that year some 520,000 cars were sold in Taiwan, keeping automobile factories running at full capacity and scrambling to hire additional workers. This year the island's car market has shrunk to just 250,000 vehicles, leaving manufacturers "severely overstaffed," says Wang in lamenting the industry's sudden downturn.

Mon-Chi Lio, an associate professor in National Sun Yat-sen University's Department of Political Economy, warns that amid such an unfavorable environment, university and college graduates need to face harsh realities. "Over the coming three years, graduates will have to face a challenge, which is not that they won't find a job, but that they need to be mentally prepared to roll up their sleeves and take any job available," says Lio, who has done extensive research on graduate recruitment. Are our students ready to face an era of high risk and high unemployment?

The 2008 CommonWealth Magazine Survey on University Student Preparedness for the Job Market, which covered 3,657 senior students islandwide, sheds some light on the issue. We asked the students, who are in their final two years at universities or vocational colleges, whether they are ready to take on the challenges of a tightening job market. The answers to our questionnaire also offer a glimpse at the attitudes of this generation born in the 1980s – their worldview, self image, and opinions on the current education system.

A Troubled Generation Worries about the Future

The survey shows that students are very pragmatic regarding the competition that they will face in the labor market and that they also have a very precise understanding of the global situation.

As many as 96 percent of the respondents believe they will enter a fiercely competitive job market, including 63 percent who said it will be "extremely fierce" and 33 percent who expect it to be "very fierce." (Table 1)

Asked to assess where their major competition will come from, 52 percent of the students answered "the whole world," while 28 percent said "China" and just 14 percent responded "Taiwan." (Table 2)

These figures show that those born in the 1980s are the children of globalization. Compared to previous generations, they are more keenly aware of the international climate.

Lio notes that, according to international trade theory, if there is rapid fluctuation in any two of the three factors of capital, goods and human resources, the third factor will also be drawn into the equation. "Competition doesn't just come from the person sitting next to you. Competition manifests itself in the cheapness of product prices and the relocation of job opportunities," Lio explains.

In the future when degrees from Chinese universities are recognized in Taiwan, local students will even lose the competitive edge that they used to have versus jobseekers from abroad thanks to their Chinese language skills.

Globalization definitely fills university students with a sense of urgency regarding their livelihood even before they have graduated. What are their worries and concerns?

Almost 90 percent of the students said that they are worried about the competition that they would face in the job market, with 58 percent saying they were " somewhat worried" and 32 percent "very worried." (Table 3)

Wait! We're Not Ready Yet

But given such trepidation, are these graduates getting prepared for all eventualities? The students surveyed frankly reveal that they are perplexed and unsure what to do.

As many as 47 percent admit that they are "little prepared" and 9 percent say they are "not prepared at all." In other words, more than half – 56 percent – of respondents acknowledge they are poorly prepared for the upcoming challenges. Only 36 percent think they are "half prepared," and a tiny 1.5 percent say they are "fully prepared." (Table 4)

The students' fears are stoked by a barrage of negative news about the labor market, be it workplace surveys by job banks or job cuts in the private sector.

As many as 57 percent of the students believe they won't be ready to face the workplace before they turn 26. Twelve percent even say it will take them until age 30 to get sufficiently prepared.

Just about one quarter of the respondents, 26 percent, say with confidence that they will be able to face the workplace challenge before graduation at age 22. Vocational college students are clearly more confident than their university counterparts, with 30 percent expecting to be ready for work upon graduation, 6 percentage points more than for university students. (Table 5)

Government statistics show that unemployment is on the rise among people with a higher education.

A comparison of unemployment rates for people with different specific educational backgrounds – junior high school and below, senior high and vocational high schools, junior college, or university – shows that university graduates long enjoyed the lowest unemployment rates, but since 2004, joblessness has been higher for university graduates than for the three other groups. And it continues to rise, according to figures from the Directorate General for Budget, Accounting and Statistics.

One reason for the high unemployment rate is the rising number of people who are graduating from university. But many entrepreneurs point out that the problem is not that there are no jobs, but rather that university students want to have white-collar jobs.

Jow-fei Ho, director of the Department of Higher Education at the Ministry of Education, worries that the protracted educational careers of today's students not only delay their entry into the labor market, but also make them mature later in life. "In the past people went out to earn money upon graduation. Nowadays society needs to spend much more money to rear them, which incurs very high social costs," says Ho in explaining his concerns.

But some also sympathize with the students' predicament. Chen Chien-jen, research fellow at the Academia Sinica, argues that formerly people invested in education until they were 18, and as long as they were able to copy notes and memorize books, they were able to get into university. But young people today need to study new technologies and much more complex issues, so that it is understandable that they need more time. "If you have worked for two or three years after finishing grad school, you will have a better understanding of what society needs," says Chen in urging more tolerance toward the delayed independence of this generation.

High Education, Low Value

Among the young people born in the 1980s, two out of three are studying at university. They are the generation with the highest education, but also the generation whose degrees hold the lowest value.

As far as this generation is concerned, they have not had any substantial benefit from their university degrees.

A total of 64 percent of respondents believe that the present university education does not suffice to turn them into human talent that is prepared for the challenges of the labor market. Some 30 percent believe they will barely be ready, whereas a mere 6 percent think that university education will help them face the job market. (Table 6)

When asked why they are not sufficiently prepared for work life, the students display a considerable degree of self reflection. Sixty-nine percent of the students frankly admit they are not diligent enough. But 52 percent also believe that the formal learning process lacks practical experience. Forty-one percent cite as a reason that the Ministry of Education does not do a good job supervising school quality, which undermines the value of university degrees. (Table 7)

Overall, the number of university students (including those attending vocational colleges) satisfied with their respective university or college stands roughly equal to the number who are dissatisfied. The dissatisfied students account for 47 percent, the satisfied ones for 53 percent. Satisfaction is 7 percentage points higher among public university students, who enjoy better resources and lower tuition, than among private university students. (Table 8)

Another important reason for student discontent is the gap between industry needs and academic studies. Some 87 percent of the surveyed students think that there is a considerable gap between what they learn at school and what is needed in the workplace. (Table 9)

As a result, students lack confidence toward work life. And since they do not understand what it takes to survive in the workplace, they are not able to become properly prepared.

Industry-Academia Gap Thwarts Vocational Preparation

When asked what makes a person competitive in the labor market, students cite the following top three factors: professional knowledge (63%), language ability (46%), and dedication and responsibility (43%). Surprisingly few point to an ability to cooperate or moral character, mentioned by 15 percent and 9 percent, respectively. (Table 10)  

This sharply contrasts with what employers want to see in newly recruited staff.

Manfred Wang, head of Qisda's Creative Design Center, points out that the electronics company, for instance, does not care much about graduates' familiarity with design software, because such technical skills can be learned within a short time on the job. But, Wang elaborates, character and personality, positive work attitudes and esthetic sensitivity are essential and cannot easily be compensated for by other strengths.

Even the manufacturing industry attaches great importance to young people's learning potential. Wang of Kuozui Motors feels that today's graduates definitely have less professional knowledge than previous generations. But what makes matters worse is that many young people lose interest after just ten days or one month on a new job or even quit because they feel work is too hard. Wang thinks that determination and interest are crucial at work.

But since students don't have a clear picture about what is expected of them in the workplace, their preparations often go into the wrong direction or lack focus.

When asked to analyze their own lack of preparedness, students mostly cited language ability (72%) and lacking professional knowledge (62%). They seem to place little value, however, on the skills that the business community feels are most important from them to develop. Innovative capability, dedication and responsibility, and ability to cooperate don't figure high on students' must-have lists. (Table 11)                                                                            

Fun, Part-time Jobs Distract from Studies

The survey also highlighted several phenomena that undermine student learning.

Despite the unfavorable overall environment, 54 percent of the students still spend more time per day on entertainment such as electronic games and surfing the web than on their studies. Just 15 percent of students surveyed focus primarily on schoolwork, as many as hold part-time jobs. (Table 12)

While some students surf the Internet with a purpose such as looking up information needed in class, the life of the present student generation is dominated by electronic games and aimless web surfing.

J. Kim Vandiver, dean of undergraduate research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), acknowledges that the Internet can contribute to learning, but he warns it has a negative impact too. Students gain only superficial knowledge, while lacking true in-depth understanding, Vandiver says. This is why MIT has now embraced a new approach encouraging students to adopt a "hands-on" and "people-on" learning strategy, Vandiver explains.

Many educators including Michael M.C. Lai, president of National Cheng Kung University, and Haydn H.D. Chen, president of Tunghai University, are most concerned that students do not devote enough time to their studies. They both observe that students are not diligent, that they easily lose concentration and lack systematic, meaningful learning.

Especially noteworthy is that students at vocational colleges spend much less time on their studies than their peers at university. At the same time they also devote much more time to entertainment and part-time jobs than university students.

With academic education having become widely available, the student body at universities also reflects the socioeconomic structure of society. A growing number of figures suggest that private vocational colleges and private universities enroll a higher share of underprivileged students. Due to their disadvantaged socioeconomic position, these students also enjoy less assistance during the learning process.

Ming-ying Chen, director of the Department of Technological and Vocational Education at the Ministry of Education, points out that the ministry not long ago lowered standards for loans to poor university and college students. At ordinary schools the number of loan applications did not increase much, but at vocational colleges applications more than doubled.

"They are the source of basic manpower for small and medium enterprises, but receive comparatively little resources," Chen adds. He believes that in the future students at private universities and colleges need to be given the opportunity to study without financial worries.

Generally, today's students are well aware where their own competitive strengths lie.

They believe that they excel over the previous generations in terms of innovative capability (70%); ability to adapt to internationalization, including an international outlook and foreign language proficiency (58%); as well as the ability to accept change (55%). (Table 13)

But they think they pale in comparison to the previous student generations when it comes to the ability to endure setbacks (75%), dedication and responsibility (64%), and a facility for in-depth thinking (38%). (Table 14)

Vicious Cycle of Pursuing Higher Degrees

But how do students deal with their worries regarding their future job careers?

A quite rational choice for many students is to evade the problem of the tightening job market by continuing their studies in graduate school.

Fifty-five percent of the respondents say they want to get a master's degree, while 15 percent believe they need to get a doctorate to stand a chance to find a good job. Just 15 percent are confident that undergraduate education alone is sufficient. Even among students at vocational and technical colleges, who usually learn specialist skills, 48 percent believe that they need to obtain a master's degree. (Table 15)

Among the students who were born in the 1980s, one in seven holds a master's degree, whereas that figure stands at just one in twenty for graduates born in the 1970s.

In the current job market taking a master's course is definitely helpful for finding work for two reasons: First, since the quality of universities varies greatly, employers take higher degrees as a benchmark when recruiting people. Secondly, university education was originally meant to include project work and hands-on practice, but nowadays only graduate schools provide practical experience.

Therefore, many employers make a master's degree their standard for recruitment.

A human resources supervisor of a private company, who declined to be identified, frankly concedes, "It's a very cruel world for graduates with bachelor's degrees who want to start their careers." The company ranks schools based on its recruitment experience into four classes and distinguishes four different levels of entry salary for graduates. There is a considerable gap between salaries for people with a master's degree and those with an undergraduate degree.

Today's university students grew up in a world afloat in money – cash cards, credit cards, and installment payments. They were used to being picky buyers in a consumer market, courted by others. But now that they are entering the labor market, it's others taking their pick among them.

How can they get through this downturn in the job market?

Professor Lio predicts that the students will join a labor market with little patience toward them. He advises graduates to "endure setbacks and become more dedicated."

He also feels that society should create more diverse competence indicators and provide more opportunities.

Judging job applicants based on their academic degrees amounts to a tremendous waste of resources. But if this trend is to be turned around, it is necessary to set up professional competitions as well as certificate and license indicators to replace academic background indicators, so that the performance signals in the employment market become more diverse.

Tunghai University president Haydn Chen urges society to take responsibility for its students and give young people an opportunity, even if they get off to a good start only on the second or third try. But he also reminds students to "make more effort to come to grips with the situation."

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz

About the survey:

The "2008 CommonWealth Magazine Survey on University Student Preparedness for the Job Market" was conducted between Sept. 26 and Oct. 31, 2008, based on questionnaires using proportionate stratified sampling. It covered a total of 4,645 students in their third or fourth year of studies at universities (including third- and fourth-year students at four-year vocational and technical colleges and first- and second-year students at two-year vocational and technical colleges) with 3,657 valid responses, amounting to a response rate of 79 percent.

(Survey execution: Ching-hsuan Huang, Bai Wei-hua)

Chinese Version: 大學生,你準備好了嗎?