Jobs were already difficult to come by before the pandemic. Even so, there was a sense that things were getting better – the United States under Donald Trump had the highest employment rates since long as anyone could remember, and the GDP of the Philippines under Duterte was at a 6 percent year-on-year growth which was one of the highest growth rates in the APAC region.
I write this with a Filipino’s perspective. While our minimum wage statute has been around for more than half a century, most private companies offer industry wages that are far below the global norm. Take for example an entry-level position for a Software Engineer position. The lower spectrum of the annual salary for that job in New York is at 60,000 to 80,000 dollars. Compare that to the same job in the Philippines – the annual salary is 8,000 dollars, or just 10 percent a New Yorker’s. You can essentially hire ten Software Engineers in my country for the price of one in the United States.
But despite the lower labor cost in the Philippines, there exist various challenges in matching people with a college degree to a suitable job, and a job that provides enough disposable income. In this brief reflection, I will look at four common challenges facing the modern job seeker. The backdrop of all this may be that of the Philippines, but I feel like these challenges are also present in other job markets.
My Personal Story
Let me start off by sharing my personal experience with the challenges in finding a good job in the modern era. Early on, I was never picky about finding a job. As long as I could apply whatever skills I gained after attending five years in college, then it was good enough for me. Of course, the pressure to find work that gave justice to my field always nagged at me. But being happy about the work I found was not difficult.
To give a wider view of the job market in the Philippines, because of the lower labor cost matched with improving literacy, foreign companies enjoy outsourcing sectors of their business here. Manufacturing is one side of the spectrum, but the blatantly obvious are the call centers. It’s no longer enough to encapsulate the call center industry in the Philippines under just the one class of customer service. Today, there is a budding growth of professional service providers in the country – Accenture and Deloitte to name a couple – and the positions offered by these companies often require a college degree.
My experience working as a call center agent though, was not with a professional services firm despite my engineering degree. This didn’t bother me at first, as it usually does for those who had just gloriously graduated from university, but I knew it was only meant for me to get my feet wet. Wet in the sense that I had no prior job experience before that call center job – and a job at a call center for foreign Telcos was the quickest way to get hired.
Of course, you still had to pass the BPO company’s assessments – English tests, speech, aptitude and attitude. They seemed to value those above whatever degree you had under your belt, because those where the only things they seemed to care about for the entry level job. I didn’t last long working at call centers – all in all, I spent a total of a year behind the phones. The work schedules can be a source of exhaustion because most of the client base is in the West.
Eventually, with the help of referral, I found my way to a job where my college degree was useful. And I used that as a springboard to get a similar job with heavier responsibilities and higher pay. And I would use that experience as a springboard for my current work – a lighter version, but better pay. I think my better pay (despite diminution of workload) is mainly because of two factors – my zip code and the type of company. The two previous companies I used to work for belonged to the SME sector, while now I work at a multinational.
I’d say the path I took, even though there were several bumps along the way, was a significantly more convenient path than the rest of the workforce. There are new members of the workforce whose degrees are incredibly difficult to match with available jobs. There are also those who suffer from a lack of networking. Networking is essential in knowing all the available job opportunities out there. And of course, the Philippines’ job market has always been unstable. The way I assessed this is by doing an online job search before and during the pandemic – on a normal day pre-pandemic, there were at least 2,000 available jobs in my region; during the pandemic that figure turned into barely 200. Lastly, the ease of doing business in the country is not well-praised. Recent legislation has tried to remedy that, but the common sentiment continues to be that there’s too much paperwork and too many recurring requirements for businesses, which always entail a form of business tax.
The College Degree Mismatch
Attaining a college degree is a sense of pride for anyone, and on your graduation day you feel like you could do anything. The whole world seems to open up and you get the sense that opportunities are unlimited. But reality slaps you in the face when you do an online job search and realize that most of the job postings require at least two years of experience. You apply the filters for the job search and isolate those jobs that require no experience, and what you find is a list of call center jobs whose synonyms for the position ‘customer service rep’ seem endless.
As a fresh graduate and job seeker your bias against those who work at call centers nags at you and so you exit the job posting website and visit the websites of the companies you want to work for – those who will actually have a use for your college diploma. You send these companies an email with your resume attached with the note that you will ‘take any available position’ and you sit back for a couple of days. The days turn into weeks, and you don’t get a response. You’ll be lucky enough to get a rejection email so you can turn your focus onto another application – but more often than not, you won’t ever get a response back.
As great the higher education sector has been the last few years in bridging the gap between skills and market demand, there remains a significant portion of college graduates who find themselves unable to land a job that’s relevant to their degree. This is not entirely CHED’s (Commission on Higher Education) fault – most of the time students, especially those without advisors, are unable choose a course that has any existing demand in the job market. The idealism of ‘be whatever you want to be’ ushers students into programs that don’t materialize into any job post-graduation.
Sometimes it’s also because of the income bracket – paths like medicine and law (which take at least 8 total years to complete) are only available to students whose families can afford the expensive and sustained tuition. And those are two jobs which at least assure a position in the country’s economy after licensure exams, whether working for someone or self-employed. The more affordable courses are in the social sciences, most of which have significant scholarship backing.
A Lack of Networking
Should you join a fraternity/sorority in college, or not? In my college days, I never gravitated towards any student organization. And one look at me would tell you that I wasn’t the fraternity type at all. Do I regret not being more active in joining groups in college? A little, but I don’t blame myself for being more shut in than others – I guess some personalities prefer to keep their lives simple.
But should students join as many organizations as they can while in college? Absolutely. The opportunity to widen your network while in college is severely underrated, and it can often mean landing a job immediately after graduation. This doesn’t mean that as a Filipino college student you should go out of your way to party every chance you get. This means taking advantage of the university setup to get to know students from different backgrounds.
There are only a few universities in the Philippines which are exclusive to those at the high-income bracket. There are even state universities which such respectable names as to rival expensive colleges. Unlike the United States where college students who can’t afford are forced to take out loans, my assessment is that the ordinary Filipino can enroll at any reputable university without incurring a mountain of debt.
However, getting into a university is one thing – making the most of it is another. There is a perceived lack of networking for those who graduate college and all of a sudden have no acquaintance to turn to for a possible job opening. There are companies who invest in posting jobs everywhere, but companies whose workforce is made up of jobs with specialized expertise often invest more in referrals. This means that you need to know someone so you can get yourself an interview.
An Unstable Job Market
The last decade or so, the job market in the Philippines took a turn for the worst during the great recession. It has rebounded some after a few years, with foreign companies looking to cut costs through outsourcing. A year or so before the pandemic, the job market was in a great position. Jobs opened up in multiple sectors – information technology, healthcare, engineering, social services, real estate – the list goes on.
These sectors are more interrelated than one might think. For example, the real estate sector gets a boost when there are more high-income jobs in the area, like in I.T. and engineering. And the more jobs there are in a specific area, the more the population will increase – leading to more demand in healthcare. These connections aside, the job market in the Philippines continues to be unstable and sometimes unpredictable.
One sector which always employs people is the construction industry – but a bigger bulk of their workforce doesn’t require higher education. For other industries, especially those which need a specific set of skill, the job market has been more unstable.
The Ease or Unease of Doing Business
Republic Act No. 11032, or ‘The Ease of Doing Business Law’ was enacted on 2018, and it aimed to further enhance the effectiveness of the Anti-Red Tape Act from a decade earlier. The current administration and the one before, have both promoted the ease of doing business. And the GDP metrics and statistics on foreign investments which enjoyed a steady increase ten years into the pandemic.
But as an insider myself, as someone who works in regulatory compliance, it’s pretty easy to say that the Philippines is an arena where there isn’t much ease on doing business. Some LGUs don’t even care about your tax incentives – if they can tax you because of some vague provision, they surely will. And the national government always somehow comes up with ways to make a private company spend money.
There are specific job positions mandated by certain government agencies, and non-compliance of which will merit a fine. Either the private company will pay the millions in fines or hire someone worth half or a third of the cost in fine (in terms of annual salary). Permits (which always come with a price tag) used to be notoriously difficult especially before Republic Act No. 11032 was signed into law. There are signs that things are getting better, but the current situation is that there are countries with cheaper labor AND with a more conducive business environment.
This lack of a conducive business environment can mean less jobs, hence less opportunities.
The Filipino college graduate is now faced with a tougher challenge. The backlog of employment opportunities during the pandemic means that when things start opening back up, there will be a rush of job seekers but too few actual jobs to fill. College graduates are in the queue, so the workforce pool will only get bigger.
The challenges above will always be around, in some form of another. Finding a job has never been easy, and being aware of these difficulties early on can provide the Filipino job seeker with more realistic expectations.
Amanda Grace from Colorado Springs, CO on April 01, 2021:
Very informative article.