From graduation to unemployment: Challenge that doesn't end with the pandemic

The Covid-19 outbreak has added to the uncertainty of university graduates’ struggle to find a job as unemployment soars and government solutions are just not enough. Academics urge state-funded training and employment projects. 

Mathuros Kliangchan, a graduating senior majoring in children’s literature, had her life planned out after being offered a freelance job, but when Covid-19 hit, her plan was ruined.

Mathuros, a student at Srinakharinwirot University, was going to work at a children-focussed company where she has previously interned. She expected some good work experience, as many children’s events would take place at this time of the year, before applying at a children’s book company. But the lockdown policy resulted in her job being cancelled.

“I’m worried because I don’t know when the situation will get back to normal, when events will come back like before. I still couldn’t find my way to the future yet,” Mathuros said. 

She also finds herself under pressure from her family who expect her to get a job and become a provider after graduation.

“In a situation like this, how can I take care of them when I can’t find a job at all?” Mathuros said.

Mathuros is among one of “the unlucky generation” according to the Bangkok Post. Economic inactivity led to 267,351 registering for unemployment benefits on the Department of Employment website in April, 84.56% higher than in March. The number of unemployed graduates in March was estimated at 130,000, 15,000 more than in 2019.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation (MHESI) estimated 500,000 jobless graduates as of April 2020 while 300,000 more graduates will likely join the workforce this year. A National Economic and Social Development Board report says around 8.4 million people are at high risk of unemployment this year.

A door closes, another opens

Mathuros is only an example of affected graduates. Many more have had their employment fates sealed in other ways. However, some jobs remain and even prosper during the outbreak.

Nabhatara Sinthuvanich recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish from Chulalongkorn University and started job hunting back in January. He got a customer service job at a company in Malaysia, decided to take the offer and signed the contract when he thought the pandemic had not made much impact in both Thailand and Malaysia. 

If there had been no Covid-19, Nabhatara would have been in Malaysia right now, but because of the lockdown and immigration and travel restrictions in both countries following the pandemic, Nabhatara decided to terminate his contract with the Malaysian company.

“At the very first, I regretted the opportunity. I felt like I was going to get an interesting job. I was going to get experience working in a foreign country,” Nabhatara said. “But now if I could choose, I wouldn’t be so sorry because I wouldn’t have wanted to put my life at risk. It wasn’t worth it. At least I am in Thailand. I still have the opportunity to find a good job.”

Napattarapon Pranmontri, an industrial engineering graduate from Chulalongkorn University whose job starting date has been postponed indefinitely, said, “honestly, I would say this is unlucky, but I had to accept it.”

Napattarapon said he almost got a job at a big company working in the field of technology, but after he reached the last round of the company’s recruiting process, the pandemic hit. The company delayed the process until further notice. He believes he will be able to secure a job after the pandemic ends as he has skills that the job market needs. Meanwhile, Napattarapon is developing his computer skills in the hope of getting job offers from big companies. 

On the other hand, Nichakarn Junthornpratin, a graduating senior in English at Chulalongkorn University, has not been affected by the pandemic at all in terms of looking for a job.

Nichakarn and some of her university friends opened a technology-related research company in February. She said she is still able to make a living with a freelance translating job she has.

 “Actually, there has been no impact at all. Work at the company is already mostly online anyway. And freelance translation work is done in front of the computer and sent online as well,” Nichakarn said.

“I understand that generally, job hunting has become harder. But I don’t know if it’s because I was lucky or it was a good time or something, but last month, some alumni came in inviting me to apply for a job that directly relates to my field,” Nichakarn said. “So now, my plate is full, even more than before Covid-19.”

Chapaorn Lhappikultong, a graduating senior in civil engineering at King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi, also said job hunting has not become more difficult for her as she believes that there are always open positions in her field. Chapaorn said she won’t face unemployment, but it might become just more competitive.

Greater challenge for new graduates 

Experts estimate the economy will not get better immediately, while the number of jobs will keep declining as technology takes a greater role. Many jobs will no longer be needed in the market, especially jobs in the service sector, and industries such as tourism and restaurants will take time to recover from the pandemic.

Dr Yongyuth Chalamwong, Director of Labour Development Research at the Thailand Development Research Institute, says graduates who are looking for jobs in the service sector will take the hardest hit as this sector employed most new graduates in the past, but the recovery of this industry could take time and employers might not be willing to hire new faces. Dr Yongyuth also said the industrial sector would require a smaller human workforce as technology plays a greater role.

Dr Yongyuth estimates that only one-third of university graduates will be able to join the workforce this year while around 300,000 new graduates will be jobless, joining around 200,000 with undergraduate degrees who are currently unemployed. 

The Bangkok Post reported in March that the Bank of Thailand forecasts the economy to shrink by 5.3% this year. Asst Prof Anusorn Tamajai, Director of the Economic and Business Research Centre at Rangsit University, says the damage to the economy from this pandemic is greater than the Tom Yam Kung financial crisis in 1997.

What has been done is not enough, collaboration is needed

On 29 April the MHESI announced a project to create 10,000 jobs with a salary of 9,000 baht per month for five months. People who had been unemployed as a result of Covid-19 could apply for a job without any education requirement or prior experience. According to the statement, jobs will be offered at 42 main institutions under the Ministry including 39 public universities, the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency and the Thailand Institute of Scientific and Technological Research. Over 19,000 people applied for the positions, but only 9,730 were successful.

The MHESI will announce a second phase of the project in mid-June, which will create 32,000 more positions.

It was also reported that the Minister, Dr Suvit Maesincee, plans to use some of the budget under the Loan Decree to hire 200,000 new university graduates to work under the Ministry. Another 100,000 university students would be hired to work for communities for a semester, so they can have compensation for income that was lost due to the pandemic.

Asst Prof Anusorn said that the government must formulate policies or collaborate with the private sector to provide employment in order to deal with the economic impact of Covid-19 because there will be nearly 11 million unemployed in the worst-case scenario.

Dr Yongyuth suggested an “upskill-reskill” policy, in which the government provides skill training for workers so when certain jobs require a skill standard, workers will have more chance to get the jobs they want.