Singapore universities started their new academic year a couple of weeks ago and I have already received multiple emails from students seeking advice on how they can best prepare for the labour market amid a prolonged crisis.
Many of these students still have a year or two before they graduate, but are nonetheless thinking ahead due to concerns about not being able to secure their preferred jobs given the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
WHAT DO EMPLOYERS LOOK FOR?
What can current tertiary students do to make themselves more attractive to employers in these uncertain times?
All employers naturally want to hire the most productive workers. The problem is that it can be hard to tell precisely, at the time of hiring, how productive a person will be, especially a fresh graduate with little working experience.
Employers therefore tend to look for markers such as academic performance or activities partaken which can potentially signal whether an applicant has qualities such as innate ability and work ethic.
One such activity would be internships where students acquire skills and experience as well as industry contacts.
However, the viability of this option for undergraduates has fallen somewhat with more companies reportedly cutting back on internship places because of the Covid-19 crisis.
Nevertheless, there are other ways to bolster employability. A feasible way, at least in the short to medium term, is by actively participating in a co-curricular activity (CCA).
LABOUR MARKET RETURN TO CCA PARTICIPATION
What are the labour market returns to CCA involvement?
A recent study by Professors Stijn Baert from Ghent University and Dieter Verhaest from KU Leuven in Belgium, which relied on a credible field-experimental design, suggests that employers could give as much weight to CCA involvement as they do to academic performance.
In this experiment, the authors created 2,800 fictitious resumes which differed only in their CCA participation and the class of degree obtained.
Everything else, including the type and reputation of the university attended, nationality, and other observable skills, was made the same.
They sent the resumes to actual job vacancies in Belgium and then compared the rates at which these resumes received an interview invitation.
They found that strong academic performance and CCA engagement both enhanced job interview rates by about 7 per cent.
These results suggest that CCA involvement can help to compensate for weaker academic performance. For example, an employer may prefer a candidate with a second-class honours compared to one with a first-class, if the former has stronger CCA credentials.
Using similar experimental designs, but based on different samples of students from other countries and time periods, studies by researchers Luisa Pinto and Diogo Ramalheira from the University of Porto and by Michael Cole from Texas Christian University, also support the conclusion that employers view candidates with CCA involvement favourably.
A large body of literature of observational studies points to this same conclusion.
Why might CCA participation improve employability?
First, as CCA participation in tertiary institutions, unlike in secondary schools, is non-compulsory, participation says something about a person’s interests and preferences.
Applicants who were previously members of a sports team would be perceived by employers to be more driven, resilient, and eager to collaborate.
Enhancing Human Capital
Secondly, CCA participation may contribute directly to a person’s knowledge and skills. Consider for instance, the National University of Singapore (NUS) National Police Cadet Corps (NPCC), a uniformed society in NUS.
Officers in the society regularly get leadership and mentoring training so that they are well-equipped to train the cadets in the units they serve.
A former student, Mr Tan Yan Jun, shared with me how being an NPCC officer developed him holistically, moulding especially his interpersonal and problem-solving skills.
More generally, CCA engagement can endow individuals with important soft skills such as communication, creativity, leadership and teamwork which employers value.
Thirdly, CCA participation enables individuals to widen their social networks. Many academic clubs, for instance, have an alumni wing which links current students with alumni.
Through networking events, current students can keep abreast of the developments and job opportunities in the industry.
CCAs also allow students from different fields of study to meet and so, learn about opportunities in other sectors.
Students Tend to Underestimate Value of CCAs
A recent poll I conducted with a class of 60 honours students revealed that 30 per cent had never participated in a CCA while in university.
Although the sample size is admittedly small and the findings may not be generalisable to the population of local tertiary students, it does suggest that students may not be fully aware of the labour market returns to CCA participation.
Many did not see a need to list their CCAs on their resumes, unless they held “important” positions, such as being on executive committees.
But as research has shown, CCA involvement can set you apart — whether or not you held a leadership position — since it potentially communicates that you have other desirable qualities and skills, such as resilience and teamwork.
While the current pandemic may reduce the viability of some CCAs, particularly those requiring close contact, many other CCAs have now resumed, and can be conducted feasibly with limited physical interaction.
Of course, students should opt for a CCA which best matches their interests, and which can help develop and demonstrate the soft skills they are seeking.
EXCHANGES AND INTERNSHIPS
Besides CCAs, participation in other school-based education programmes such as student exchanges, when the situation allows, can also make students more attractive to employers, for similar reasons.
Furthermore, while fewer internships exist these days, this does not mean that students should give up trying to secure such opportunities, since internship experiences can also help to make students more attractive.
Students can proactively source internship opportunities through the career centres of their universities.
OTHER TIPS TO BOOST EMPLOYABILITY
When ready to enter the labour market, students should ensure they have a well-organised and error-free resume, which highlights only their most important achievements.
It is tempting to list everything you have achieved — including that singing competition you won 10 years ago. But resist the urge to do that as it will make it hard for your most significant achievements that are relevant to the job to stand out.
Be strategic. As a rule of thumb for fresh graduates, your resume and cover letter should not exceed two pages each.
It is worth spending some time researching the companies you are applying for and tailoring each application to demonstrate that you have precisely the qualities sought by each company.
Finally, when the coveted interview opportunity arises, ensure you are well prepared to answer commonly asked questions like “why do you want this job?”, “how can you add value to the company?”, and “what are your greatest strengths/weaknesses?”.
Together, these strategies will help you gain a first step through a company’s door.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kelvin Seah Kah Cheng is a senior lecturer in the Department of Economics, National University of Singapore and a research affiliate at IZA Institute of Labor Economics. His research focuses on the economics of education.