Higher Education Commentary, Social Justice Commentary

Underemployment among B40 graduates in Malaysia

Underemployment among Malaysian graduates has been an issue for some time now, yet we don’t seem anywhere close to resolving the issue.

I used to teach B40 students, some who were ineligible to study in government higher education institutions. I also used to hire staff who are from this population. There are several young people from this population I continue to mentor careerwise. This population is often denigrated: they lack drive, they are too choosy, they ask for too much, etc etc etc. It’s easiest to point fingers at them rather than reflecting on what isn’t working with our systems.

My perception on this matter is that B40 students (especially those like my students / former staff) do not usually have the social and cultural capital needed to navigate the job market. Many of them do know how to write *effective* CVs and cover emails. It’s very easy to download a template off the internet, which everybody seems to do, but there’s plenty of trash all over the internet and people don’t always know how to pick and choose what works. Many do not have professional role models. The majority do not have career mentors. They do not always know what they are capable of doing, they don’t know how to make the right career decisions for themselves.

One of the things I’ve been doing lately is supporting health professionals from B40 backgrounds (not only Malaysians, but in other developing countries as well) who want to secure jobs abroad. Some of them have sent out many CVs and cover letters but just cannot secure a response and they think they are not good enough. All I did was revise their CVs and cover letters according to international norms and they started getting interviews and even offers. To be able to earn what these jobs are paying is going to make a huge difference to their families.

These are hardworking, driven people who are good at what they do. The only thing between them and the shitload of money they could have earned from jobs abroad was that they did not have was the cultural capital to craft a CV / cover letter for the context they were applying to and did not have the social capital to find out how.

To address this phenomenon of underemployed B40 graduates, I say it starts with the educators. How many of our lecturers have industry experience and know how to navigate the job market? How many educators know how employers think and are able to train their students to meet market needs? Until our higher education systems start hiring educators from such backgrounds or making a deliberate effort to involve them as stakeholders in programme / curriculum / teaching development, I think higher education will continue doing B40 graduates a disservice in their education and training. These students go into higher education thinking it is a ticket to a better life for their families, but the system is letting them down.

Stop blaming the graduates. Too many of them don’t know better. Start looking at how to address the issues in our systems.

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