Crossroads | Unconventional Routes to Take After A and O Levels

Many graduates will choose to pursue school prestige, but they're missing a crucial step here. Let's take a pause to think about how you can make the best out of this downtime to figure out not only how you want to make a living, but also how to make a life. Let's first look at how things are changing in Singapore Do qualifications and grades matter?

Career Guides
Wong Wing Lum

Let’s be honest. Before an individual’s job experience becomes rich enough to shine on its own, qualifications and grades play a vital role as pre-qualifiers. In essence, they do matter (to a certain degree) in helping people get one foot through the door.

Though, it’s helpful to note that more companies and higher learning institutions are beginning to look for other ways to assess applicants beyond their O-Level scores. That’s because the focus is now shifted to their latest academic qualifications in A-Levels or polytechnic grade point average (GPA).

Academic qualifications provide a tangible metric for which employers can reasonably gauge an applicant’s personal and professional bandwidth. As Managing Director of Robert Half Singapore Matthieu Imbert-Bouchard puts it succinctly, “Academic transcripts indicate the intellectual aptitude of an applicant. They are also reflective of the individual’s diligence, research ability, critical and analytical skills, and project management skills.”

Must I get a university degree?

It depends. The typical route for regulated professions in healthcare, financial, law and engineering sectors generally requires a higher education qualification. That said, more efforts are channelled towards creating more viable pathways to go about accrediting these practitioners without the need to acquire a university degree. One example is the formulation of the National Engineering Career Progression Pathway in 2019, which allows those with a diploma or ITE certificate to be recognised as engineers without having to go to university.

But if you’re hoping that your university degree can be used as a meal ticket, you’re in for a rude awakening. The Economist reported that the valuation of a college degree decreases as the number of graduates increases. The fallacy lies in overstating what they call a “graduate premium” or “return on investment” in higher education, which is the difference between the average earnings of someone with a university degree compared to someone with no more than a secondary-school education.

Bringing this home, fresh university graduates were already having a tough time securing full-time employment before Singapore was hit by COVID-19. Unemployment has been on a progressive rise since 2016, hitting resident degree-holders the hardest. According to graduate employment surveys across NUS, NTU and SMU, only 78.4% of graduates managed to secure full-time jobs six months after their graduation in 2017 – the lowest figure in 10 years.

An increasingly educated workforce means that holding a degree no longer bears the prestigious mark of a good hire. As Andreas Schleicher, head of education research at OECD points out “countries have skills shortages, not degree shortages”. You need much more – eg: soft skills, hard skills, practical work and volunteer experiences – to stand out from the competition.

What employers are looking for?

According to a 2019 report by Manpower Ministry, academic qualifications were not the main consideration for some 51% of professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) vacancies – roles of which included software, web and multimedia developers and commercial and marketing sales executives.

Mr Imbert-Bouchard also acknowledged that qualifications and theoretical knowledge only tell one side of the story. They cannot substitute practical experience and “do not reflect a candidate’s passion, their growth potential, or their cultural alignment with the company”.

The great news is that he’s not alone.

Leaders across different companies and organisations in Singapore echo his sentiments. A common thread is the recognition of character attributes as stronger indicators of an employee’s potential to succeed. Increasingly, more employers are looking out for other benchmarks – such as soft skillsbeyond their educational credentials when it comes to recruiting talent.

A recent NTUC LearningHub Survey also found that 7 in 10 employers intend to hire workers with broader skillsets to be able to take on hybrid roles. They singled out effective communication, teamwork or collaboration and data analysis as the top three most valuable supplementary skills required for this hybrid role. Find out how you can progressively improve the most in-demand skillsets in this guide.

What are your options? Pt. 2: The not-so-conventional Route

The hiring landscape is changing, but educational institutions are still slow to react in better preparing students to be job-ready upon graduation. That’s where training providers like Hatch come in to fill the skills gap. Take for instance Google, who defiantly challenged the giants of higher education by launching Google Career Certificates in mid-2020. Their six-month courses were designed to get any individual enrolled in high-paying high-growth careers. That is, without the need for a college degree and at less than a fraction of what it would cost to go to a university.

With more accessible avenues to acquire in-demand relevant industry skills, the world is still very much your oyster even if you’ve hit a tiny roadblock in your educational journey.

So, don’t despair. This could be an opportunity to blaze a trail towards creating a society that comes to value an individual’s merit and skills they possess as opposed to their qualifications.

Find out what excites you (and pays the bills)

Begin with the end in mind. We’ve established above that it’s not enough to go through the motions of conventional education pathways and wait for things to fall into place. You have to intentionally carve out time to reflect upon the difficult questions. Is there an intersection between your interests and what you can realistically make a career out of? Think long-term. What do you envision yourself doing in the future such that it will bring you the most fulfilment?

Not everyone has the luxury of a defining eureka moment that sends a strong signal of what they are passionate about. Switching on discovery mode helps you to narrow down the fields that you are interested in. With COVID-19 still ongoing, there are free webinars and taster programmes that offer a peek into specific job roles and industries.

You can also get started by tapping into free online resources to increase your exposure to different fields of study.

Skilling up

As you complete the courses, top them off with certifications (note that additional costs may apply). This highlights your competencies in a given subject matter to prospective employers. Once you have roughly verified your interest in topics that excite you, do a landscape sweep on all the possible options where you can get formal training through accredited courses.

You can gather unbiased insights on the quality of the classes by approaching past alumni who have listed their credentials on LinkedIn. Do note that some specialised schools have specific entry requirements that applicants must meet before they can enrol (eg: specific grades and certifications).

Here at Hatch, we run two main programmes: the Hatch Immersive and the Hatch Accelerator. While both of which are industry-centric courses covering emerging digital and design sectors, they differ in programme outcomes. The Immersive is designed for job seekers looking to break into the UI/UX Design or Digital Marketing industry in under 6 months. While the Accelerator aims to equip students and working professionals with industry-relevant skillsets and build portfolios that impress.

Putting skills into practice

The last step is probably the toughest to materialise. You’ll need to seize opportunities where you can apply newly acquired skills in a professional setting. Here’s where it’s important to sell yourself via an outstanding resume and stellar job interview.

Head in with a mindset to grow. Because you’re just starting, you must manage your expectations regarding the remuneration package and employee perks. As you rack up more experiences, you can get a clearer idea of what you’re good at and wish to do more of. You can then go on to negotiate better packages depending on the value you can bring to a company.

If you join the Hatch Immersive, you can leave this step to us. Our programme is primarily designed to secure employment outcomes, hence students can expect internship attachments or flexible work arrangements upon graduation. Our graduates have since been employed in a range of digital and design-related roles across different sectors of the industry.


It’s important to start thinking about these questions early on, so you can find out what you identify with. You don’t need to have all the right answers right from the get-go. Even if you do not have something that burns you up with fiery passion, you can learn by elimination about what pumps you up or puts you off.

As you embark on the next phase of your life, we at Hatch implore you to be courageous and to be brave in taking the path less travelled if it’s something that you believe in.

After all, there’s no linear pathway to learning.

You can always choose to further your education in the future.

This post is part of our 4 part series on routes O-Level and A-Level graduates can take after getting their results. Read the rest of the series here:

Hatch is an impact-driven business with the mission to make digital and design opportunities accessible for all.  That's why we are committed to sharing valuable resources like these freely and openly for the community.

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