After graduating from the University of Barcelona with a degree in special education three years ago, Miss Georgia Quiles, 25, began hunting for a job.

The only one she has held since then - 10 hours a week as a relief teacher.

Graduate friends have had to settle for being shop assistants and theatre ushers. They are part of what has been dubbed "the Lost Generation" in ailing European economies and others struggling with rising rates of youth unemployment.

"There are no jobs," says Miss Quiles, referring to her home city of Barcelona in the north of Spain.

"When you finish your degree, it's the moment to start work and to begin your life, when you make plans for your future, but you don't have opportunities," she adds.

Earlier this year, she and her boyfriend decided to move to Singapore. As she is qualified to teach Spanish, she rang a Spanish-language school here and was offered a job before she left home.

Her boyfriend found a job as an architect within a month.

Her experience illustrates the opportunity divide that has opened up between young people in troubled economies like Spain, and their peers in places like Singapore where the vast majority of fresh graduates land full-time jobs with a decent pay within months of graduation, and some even before that.

Singapore Management University law graduate Doreen Chia, 23, received a job offer from law firm Harry Elias Partnership a year before graduation.

To her, that is the norm as "almost everyone gets a training contract" before they graduate, she says of her law faculty peers.

Others wait just a little longer. More than nine in 10 polytechnic and university graduates here who entered the job market last year snagged jobs within six months of graduation.

Singapore's jobless rate for youth aged 15 to 24 was 6.7 per cent last year - one of the lowest in the world, as Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin highlighted this week at a polytechnic graduation ceremony. Spain's is 53.1 per cent.

Singapore is among a small minority of developed countries that have kept their youth jobless rate below 10 per cent. Others include Germany, Norway, Japan and South Korea.

Singapore's strengths include an abilities-driven school system, market-driven tertiary education, a resilient economy, a flexible labour market and good governance. But how long can it sustain high youth employment in the face of fresh competition?

Of degrees, diplomas and jobs

SINGAPORE Polytechnic graduate Syahirah Nurdiyana, 19, received a job offer in the final year of her digital media course.

It came straight after her four-month internship with digital magazine company Onezine, whose boss liked her designs. He made her an offer and she accepted.

Such happy matches do not happen by chance. They are part of a post-secondary education system designed to align curriculum and learning to the needs of employers.

Universities, polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education (ITE) are assessed by the ease with which their graduates secure jobs. That is a key performance indicator for all publicly funded post-secondary institutes, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) tells Insight.

"We encourage them to provide a balanced mix of courses to better meet broad industry demand patterns and maximise employment outcomes," says MOM's divisional director of manpower policy and planning Adrian Chua.

Employers are represented on curriculum advisory councils, and there is close collaboration between the tertiary institutions and government agencies familiar with the skills needs in the industries they oversee.

Faculty and staff of these schools actively seek internship opportunities for students. These span a range of employers, from small local companies to large multinational firms.

Mr Alex Chan, 25, will step right into an investment banking job at Credit Suisse when he graduates in July from the Nanyang Business School. It was offered to him after he served a 10-week summer internship with the bank, during which he worked on corporate transactions, met both senior and junior bankers, and went to Hong Kong for a week's training.

And the tertiary institutes are not sitting still. Take the National University of Singapore (NUS). Every year, it surveys employers to find out the top five attributes they seek in fresh graduates. Last year, these were communication skills, drive, collaborative interpersonal skills, initiative and ability to be a team player.

Ms Corrine Ong, director of the NUS career centre, says the university makes it clear to freshmen that they need to develop these skills, and runs programmes to help them, like one called Headstart.

"We tell them when you come to university, don't just study and think that if you have an NUS degree, you are guaranteed a job, which is no longer true. If you don't show employers you have those five skills, you are out, even if you have a first-class honours degree," she says.

While such a market-driven approach to education may be ana-thema to those who believe universities should celebrate learning for its own sake, it has helped avert the skills mismatch that plagues some other economies.

Spain's universities, for example, have come under fire for being too academic.

UOB economist Alvin Liew says what has helped Singapore is that it is small, nimble and ever ready to change, to keep pace with the changing needs of industry and the economy.

When a decision is made to grow a new industry, such as aerospace for example, polytechnics and universities work with companies to quickly ramp up the number of graduates in the field.

Another key factor is its flexible labour market, with few restrictions on employers' decisions to hire and fire. Here, Mr Chua of MOM draws a link between that and job creation.

"We must take care to avoid having excessive friction for companies to restructure, re-deploy and possibly reduce their workforce in response to business conditions because this causes companies to be excessively cautious in hiring, hence dampening job creation and leading to high youth unemployment," he says.

But even with the current low rate of joblessness among the young, there is room for improvement, says NUS labour economist Hui Weng Tatt.

He points to a group of young residents with below lower secondary education who consistently experience the highest rates of unemployment among the resident labour force.

Last year, the jobless rate among the 9,000 young residents with less than primary education, was 15.5 per cent - more than twice the national average for that age group.

The rate for a smaller group of 1,600 with lower secondary education was 14.3 per cent.

"In a labour-short economy, more attention and effort should be directed at helping to match this group of young unemployed to available jobs," says Associate Professor Hui.

Competition gets more intense

IF CAREER counsellors have one worry, it is that local graduates' job expectations just keep rising.

Mr Loh Pui Wah is the director of the Nanyang Technological University's Career and Attachment Office.

He says: "If society encourages graduates to go after the glamorous jobs because of high pay and social status, or jobs which are more office-bound and less in the field, or with perceived good work-life balance, it may cause over-employment in some sectors and under-employment in others.

"If this persists in the long run, businesses may leave Singapore if they cannot find suitable graduates, causing structural unemployment."

But young people have become accustomed to having their pick of good jobs, so it is difficult to rein in such expectations.

Within Singapore, there are two big shifts taking place which could affect the young's ability to land that coveted first job, post graduation.

The first is the Government's move to increase the number of publicly funded university places from 27 per cent of each student cohort to 40 per cent.

On hearing this, some undergraduates howled in dismay as they feared there would not be enough good jobs to go around.

MOM's Mr Chua says that as it is, thousands of young non-graduates upgrade under their own steam, turning to private institutions or going overseas for a degree.

The change means that more of them will in future be able to secure a subsidised university place right here.

Most of these new university places will be for applied degrees, such as in nursing. The idea is to impart skills with direct relevance to workplace needs.

The second shift is the restructuring of the Singapore economy towards high-value activities and therefore better jobs. That means persuading multinational companies to locate more of their high-value activities here, and helping local small and medium-sized enterprises to upgrade and expand.

Mr Chua is frank that "if we do not make progress in restructuring over the next one to two decades, we risk increased under-employment as the economy may not provide enough high-value jobs to match the rising skill profile of our future workforce".

Mr Philip Overmyer, chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, says businesses are already moving their high-value activities to Singapore.

Take the strategy to get MNCs to locate their regional headquarters here. Companies are not only doing that, they are also using Singapore in new ways, as a finance hub for their regional funds, for example.

These activities create higher-level jobs that are harder and require more skills. What is crucial is that enough Singaporeans decide to work in these areas and acquire the skills to do so, he says.

UOB's Mr Liew says a small, diversified economy like Singapore may simply not have enough people with the right expertise. That is why, as it tightens its Employment Pass framework in a bid to level the playing field for local residents, it must keep its doors open to foreigners at the high end, he says, as they can help anchor activities, and therefore jobs, here.

As a high-cost business centre, Singapore has little choice but to move up the value chain. Snapping at its heels are lower-cost, developing countries like China whose populations are fast catching up in terms of skills and education.

With university education now accessible to the masses, millions of new workers graduate there each year with paper qualifications not that different from those of their counterparts here, yet with lower salary expectations.

Barclays economist Leong Wai Ho observes that as a result of this rapid expansion of university places, countries in Asia are already struggling to create enough jobs to satisfy educated school-leavers each year.

Part of the problem is that Asian graduates tend to hold out for white-collar jobs, he says. That is pertinent to Singapore, as it considers how it can increase the share of professional, manager, executive and technical or PMET jobs from the current one in two, to two in three. Some economists have questioned if this is even doable.

Mr Leong's suggestion? "Perhaps we should be redirecting our efforts at redesigning blue-collar jobs, making them more appealing. One way is the German way - investing in a strong technical education system, which supplies high-quality apprentices to big corporate industrial names.

"Young people see this sort of blue-collar work as prestigious, and there is a clearer path to progression, even to management."

With changes in technology and education gathering pace, Singapore cannot afford to stand still.

It will have to stay on its toes to anticipate change, respond and adapt so as to make sure its young people remain on the right side of the global jobs and opportunity divide.

 
Their job-hunting experiences

RELIEF TEACHER FOR TWO YEARS

"There's no work, and if you want to work, maybe you have to have three degrees and be very well prepared because there are no jobs.

When I finished my degree in special needs teaching in 2010, I worked for two years but for only 10 hours a week in public schools as a relief teacher. Up to this year, I still hadn't found another job."

- Ms Georgia Quiles, 25, has a bachelor's degree in primary and special education from the University of Barcelona, Spain, but could find only work as a relief teacher in her home country

LUCK AND INTEREST

"I was relieved when the boss hired me out of my internship. I have other friends whose bosses were interested in hiring them, but they weren't into the company and didn't really like what they were doing. It's mostly due to luck and whether they're interested."

- Ms Syahirah Nurdiyana, 19, has a diploma in digital media from Singapore Polytechnic and was hired by a digital magazine company four months before she graduated.

PLENTY TO CHOOSE FROM

"Almost everyone gets a training contract. It wasn't very difficult; most people got what they wanted. It seems like there are more jobs than law graduates."

- Ms Doreen Chia, 23, has a Bachelor of Law degree from Singapore Management University, and was offered a training contract with Harry Elias Partnership after an internship in December 2010 during her third year of law school.

FINDING A GOOD FIT

"Every one (of my friends) found a job within six months. The main challenge of job hunting was finding a job that was a good fit. I wanted a balance between what interests me and putting my degree to good use."

- Ms Lee Sue Ann, 23, graduated with a Bachelor of Social Science in Psychology and Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources from Singapore Management University. She was offered a management associate job with The Learning Lab enrichment centre two weeks after applying, and three months before she graduated.

CONNECTIONS MATTER

"I don't know if... they weren't hiring, or that they hired only people they knew, but (my friend) assured me that at the video game store branch in Mayaguez (where I live), they just outright threw any resumes into the trash.

Jobs exist in multiple sectors in Puerto Rico, but it's hard for a kid to get them when adults need jobs as well. Older workers will usually know someone, or have experience in some other field that will help them land a job."

- Mr Ian Rolon, 24, will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of Puerto Rico this December. Mr Rolon, who is working part-time as a student secretary in his university's English department, will look for a job in the United States.