Illustration by Carlo Patricio P. Franco

BY END of March, around 500, 000 college graduates will crowd the already swollen ranks of the country’s unemployed amid the global economic crisis, which in itself has triggered massive worker retrenchments worldwide.

No less than the Department of Labor and Employment (Dole) through its Bureau of Labor and Employment Statistics has acknowledged this fact. The country’s unemployment rate is at 7.7 percent as of January, 0.3 percent higher than the previous year. During that span of time, the number of unemployed persons, in absolute terms, rose by 63,000 to 2.716-million.

“This figure (2.716 million) could have been higher if not for the decline in the labor force participation rate (LFPR) from 64.0 percent to 63.6 percent over the period,” the Labor department has said.

More than half or 1.398 million of the unemployed workforce belong to the 15-24 years age bracket, an “equally large” portion of which are composed of “college undergraduates and graduates” estimated at 1.085 million. Meanwhile, the number of “high school graduates or undergraduates” who comprise “majority” of the unemployed are estimated at 1.237 million.

But focus should be given to college graduates, whose preference for high-paying white and blue-collar jobs despite inadequate or mismatched skills necessary for succeeding in their “dream” occupations, coupled with employers’ overtly elitist hiring practices, has made entry into the labor force more challenging, if not discouraging for the growing number of the “educated unemployed.”

Despite a slight tick in overall unemployment, Dole noted that the Philippines had made employment gains in the service sector, which expanded by 2.2 percent (361,000 jobs) most notably in public administration and defense, compulsory social security (125,000), wholesale and retail trade (95,000) and real estate, renting and business services (68,000).

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Yet there is no guarantee that the latest pool of college graduates will be automatically absorbed by new job openings in the service sector. As a 2003 study released by the Dole’s Institute for Labor Studies suggests, the characteristics and/or quality of our college graduates “appear to be questionable, if not problematic,” due to poor communication skills of most applicants which employers find disturbing given “a large pool of educated, English-speaking and highly trainable manpower.”

Aside from poor communication skills, a 2006 survey conducted by the People Management Association of the Philippines showed that most fresh graduates usually lack the proper problem-solving skills and initiative needed to fulfill the demands of jobs applied for. The institute attributes these “skills deficiency” to the “proliferation of sub-standard education and training institutions, which are characterized by poor curricula, inadequate teacher training and low investment in education, as well as its unequal distribution in the country.”

Yearning for quality personnel, companies then tend to develop a kind of recruitment bias toward applicants educated in “reputable” colleges and universities, perhaps driven by the assumption that these institutions have prepared their graduates well, academically and personality-wise.

Job-seeking graduates are as picky as their prospective employers. While there may be a thousand jobs waiting for them in the labor market, graduates have to consider two things: either to value the weight of their respective college degrees when applying for a job, regardless of the compensation, or discounting the same in exchange for work that offers a hefty pay check, whose amount may be twice or thrice that of a manager or supervisor in a company where their college training should have been ideally aligned with in the first place. (Of course, the quixotic bunch would like to have the best of both worlds as much as possible.) In effect, this learning-more or earning-more misadventure creates a self-imposed job-skill mismatch among college graduates whose success or failure again boils down to qualifications or the lack of them. Fresh graduates nowadays are also conscious of promotional mobility in the labor market that rising from the ranks has become an afterthought. And so they would rather become bosses and or at least try to earn the sums in the taskmaster’s paycheck by stationing themselves in misplaced work designations.

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Latest enrollment data from the Commission on Higher Education (Ched) provides kernel of truth to this observation with business administration – classified by the Ched as a “non-priority” course – emerging as the most enrolled tertiary program, next to the medical and allied sciences where nursing (a priority course) belongs.

The root of college graduates’ perception toward the absence of promotional mobility in the workplace can also be attributed to rigid employment turnover from the old-timers to the young ones. Yet every employer, invoking entrepreneurial practicality, may argue that to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of business, having an experienced workforce is an imperative.

Meanwhile, a 2005 study conducted by UP School of Labor and Industrial Relations dean Jorge Sibal noted that the agriculture sector has managed to account for 41 percent (or an average of 640,000 annually) of the 14.7 million jobs created from 1980 to 2003. Yet the agriculture sector hardly attracts prospective workers out of college. Why is this so? We can only surmise that farming being anomalously identified with either “hard labor” or a token for “retirement” reinforces this crooked misconception. As a result, enrollment in agriculture-related courses plummeted to a negative 4.1-average growth according to the latest Ched statistics in 2005.

Given the influx of graduates with business degrees who flood the job market every year, it is crucial to note that the number of those self-employed by virtue of being able to run and manage a business was only at around 69,000 in 2008. Why so? Sen. Manuel Villar posits in the explanatory note of his proposed bill to promote entrepreneurship “by mandating banks to provide five-percent of their loanable funds to new graduates and full-time students,” that a graduate’s claim to self-sufficiency is “hampered by lack of material and financial resources available.”

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Unfortunately, the Villar bill, which seeks to “solve the high unemployment rate among college graduates and undergraduate students” by teaching them “to face the world with an entrepreneurial mindset,” continues to gather dust in the Senate.

With servicing at the forefront of job opportunities in the country, the National Statistics Coordinating Board (NSCB) has said that Filipino graduates today are better off given more employment opportunities than their counterparts ten years ago. More intriguingly, some of these jobs do not require a college education, the NSCB added.

If this is the case, then perhaps students should now ignore the conventional wisdom of graduating from college to gain better work prospects and instead heed the sharp pronouncement of Technical Education and Skills Development Authority secretary general Augusto Syjuco that “employers are looking for skills, not a diploma displayed on the wall.” Ouch.

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