Student expectations to earn S$3,000 to S$4,000 from their first jobs: Contextualising expectations with reality

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Scholarship portal BrightSparks conducted a survey of 3,215 university, polytechnic, and junior college students, and news outlets ran with the provocative headlines “1 in 5 students in Singapore expect starting salaries of S$4,000 or more, survey finds” (Nov. 21) and “Three in four students in Singapore expect more than $3,000 from their first job” (Nov. 20). Unsurprisingly, the headlines drew derisive criticisms against young Singaporeans characterised as being unrealistic or too demanding with their inflated salary expectations, even though results of the Ministry of Education’s Graduate Employment Surveys (GES) show that the expected starting salaries – especially that of potential university graduates – are very much in reach.

Among all the respondents, across a generally normal distribution:

  • 1.47 per cent expected a starting pay of below S$2,000;
  • 8.20 per cent expected S$2,001 to S$2,500;
  • 14.40 per cent expected S$2,501 to S$3,000;
  • 30.87 per cent – the majority of the respondents – expected S$3,001 to S$3,500;
  • 23.76 per cent expected S$3,501 to S$4,000; and
  • 21.29 per cent expected above S$4,000.

Taking the most recent GES into consideration, it would appear that the university students who were sampled are being very realistic. And probably well-informed too. In 2018, the mean and median gross monthly salaries among fresh graduates in full-time permanent employment were S$3,733 and S$3,500 respectively, both increasing from S$3,613 and S$3,400 the year before. The situation is different for junior college students – who usually advance to universities – and for polytechnic students: The 2018 GES among fresh polytechnic and post-National Service graduates found that the median gross monthly salaries of those in full-time permanent positions was S$2,350 (compared to S$2,235 in 2017).

This distinction between university, polytechnic, and junior college students is critical. It is not clear if the polytechnic students were thinking about their first job after graduation from their current schools, or whether they were set on getting a first job after graduating from a university (a majority of the students are reported to favour pursuing further education – though the extent is not clear – and also to stay in Singapore). Like the junior college students, it is possible that they are more far-removed from the job market compared to their counterparts in the universities, and therefore have less knowledge about the market or industry rates.

In fact, one of the articles reported:

“When broken down by education level, junior college respondents had the highest salary expectations, with 24 per cent expecting salaries above S$4,000. This figure fell to 14 per cent for polytechnic respondents and 13 per cent for university respondents.

When asked to select an expected salary bracket, the largest share of junior college respondents (26.5 per cent) picked “above S$4,000”, while the largest share of polytechnic and university respondents (24.5 per cent and 42.5 per cent respectively) picked the “S$3,000 to S$3,500” option.”

In other words, it is not clear if the three categories of respondents should be lumped together or if their salary expectations – or other related questions – are necessarily comparable.

Notwithstanding the oft-cited concerns about the transparency of the research process involved in these research publications and indices – with the sampling and data collection methodology, in particular (since the demographics and socio-economic backgrounds of the sample may account for their salary expectations) – other questions can be asked about the students. How do the salary expectations vary based on one’s course of study, planned specialisation, or choice of industry? To what extent do the expectations vary based on one’s grades, academic performance, or co-curricular involvement? Or even one’s school?

And above all, how do students derive their expected pay for their first job? Trying to understand the process through which they make these decisions – referencing the GES, for instance – would allow for much more targeted policy interventions for education and career guidance.

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