Jobless graduates a wake-up call
Recently, I've been hearing more and more reports of young graduates finding it difficult to get a job. Some have been forced to rely on their parents for financial support, or else take a master's degree just to keep them busy.
This not a good sign for the Thai economy or job prospects for young people. Last week, the Minister of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation raised concerns that fully half of new graduates are likely to go jobless due to the economic slowdown.
Suvit Maesincee cited a survey showing that some 370,000 graduates are currently unemployed. When about 300,000 students leave university in March next year, the number of unemployed young graduates will rise to more than 500,000.
In response, his ministry is funding an 8.6-billion-baht "Youth Build the Nation" scheme to provide paid volunteer jobs to unemployed graduates while also upgrading entrepreneurship skills for university students.
The scheme, whose name reflects nationalist propaganda of the '70s, is comprised of three programmes. Most funding will go to the graduate volunteer programme, which will recruit 50,000 university leavers to work as paid volunteers in rural areas for one year. The other two programmes, Asa Pracharat, or state-public volunteerism, and a youth enterprise fund, will recruit university students to work on community development projects and develop start-ups.
I agree that the scheme will benefit the target groups. But its impact will likely be short-lived. Ongoing high unemployment caused by the economic slowdown is exacerbated by workers' lack of professional skills and competitive capacity. Their skills don't match the demands of a labour market that is shifting to high-tech industries.
According to the National Statistics Office survey in October, around 40% of unemployed workers are educated to degree level and 48% of these have never had jobs.
But the statistics could be misleading. The survey defines "the employed" as people who work at least one hour a week. Those who are unemployed but get a job working just an hour or two per week are considered to be employed by the survey. As such, the unemployment rate could be higher than recorded. Unfortunately, the government does not take this seriously.
While more new graduates are projected to become jobless, there have been a spate of reports in the past few months about factories halting operations or shutting down completely. Many manufacturers, especially auto parts makers, have announced suspension of operations, job cuts or early retirement schemes. But Labour Minister Chatu Mongol Sonakul assures us the situation is not yet too worrying.
The slump in the global economy and domestic consumption are to blame. However, some companies report that layoffs are just part of "workforce restructuring" in preparation for integration of artificial intelligence and robots into their manufacturing processes.
But our higher education is failing to equip students with the skills they need for this era of technological disruption. For example, a recent engineering graduate lamented to me that his job search has been long and fruitless. He blames his lack of problem-solving ability and practical technological knowledge -- skills he was not taught in Thailand's traditional classrooms which focus on rote learning and theory.
Social science graduates tell me it has been hard to find jobs that match their skills. They have ended up taking admin jobs, but couldn't handle pressure and assignments properly because they lack management and coordinating skills.
Along with the high number of graduates who are jobless there are plenty more who are employed in jobs that do not match their degrees and skills. This became evident in 2017 when more than 6,500 people with masters and post-doctoral degrees registered themselves as "poor" so as to qualify for the new government welfare card scheme. The reasons for their poverty weren't recorded but it's obvious they they had struggled in vain to find jobs with decent pay.
Young graduates who are able to adapt by, for example launching e-commerce start-ups and tapping opportunities in the global market, can survive.
The big question is how the government can upgrade the capacity of those who have been left behind by the rapid changes in the labour market. This is not something that we can solve by providing short-term courses or paid volunteer work. Thai education needs to be capable of enhancing the skills, quality and adaptive capacity of new graduates through changes to teaching methods, adjustments to courses and knowledge sharing with industries. I'm aware the government has introduced many training courses and funded educational projects across the country, while also collaborating with educational institutions and businesses to improve students' skills. It also offers every child 15 years of free education. But there are serious doubts about the efficiency and success of these efforts.
The shortcomings reflect a lack of adaptive capacity among political leaders and government officials, who have continued to promote rigid and top-down bureaucratic approaches to education while resisting change at every turn.
Unless the government acknowledges that the unemployment rate among young people is a big problem and that our economy is in turmoil, it won't find the political will to deliver the long-term measures necessary if new graduates are to get the jobs they need.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.