Tackling graduate unemployment is a shared responsibility

Supporting students as they transit into the labour market has been a great concern for various stakeholders in Indonesia. This is because of the relatively high unemployment rate. The Indonesian statistics agency, Badan Pusat Statistik (BPS), reported that the country’s unemployment rate was 6.2% in February 2021.

Unemployment is caused by several factors. The first relates to universities. There have been many arguments about how Indonesian universities have failed to provide sufficient resources to prepare students to be work-ready. For instance, while industries and employers are increasingly looking for employees who have both specialised and professional skills, higher education curricula still focus wholly on specialised knowledge.

The Indonesian National Qualification Framework, the KKNI, has emphasised the development of curricula that mainly focus on knowledge mastery and some common general skills. Higher education institutions provide a very limited opportunity for students to participate in extra-curricular activities, internships, voluntary programmes and so forth.

Strengthening connections

In 2020, however, the Directorate General of Higher Education, under the Ministry of Education, launched the Merdeka Belajar Kampus Merdeka (MBKM) programme. This programme was designed to support the Indonesian Qualification Framework to strengthen connections between higher education programmes and the needs of industries.

MBKM promotes the implementation of eight main programmes, including student mobility, internships, teaching assistance work in schools, research, voluntary work, entrepreneurship, independent study projects and thematic community service programmes in remote areas.

The programme is expected to enhance students’ skills so that they can be ready for industry. Some activities are designed to upscale graduates’ real-life experience through, for instance, internship programmes, teaching assistance, voluntary work, entrepreneurship and thematic community services. It is hoped that students can develop knowledge, skills and resources beyond technical knowledge.

MBKM is a potential programme for developing students’ resources, but its interpretation and application are complicated. Several obstacles have been found relating to internal regulation, administration, infrastructure, industry partners and partnership models, curricula, human resources, student readiness and mindset. It is still too early to conclude whether the programme is effective in terms of supporting students to build the knowledge and skills required by employers.

High expectations

Other potential reasons for graduate underemployment in Indonesia stem from the high expectations of employers. Emma Allen’s 2016 study found that employers, especially large organisations, are looking for candidates who have a package of high academic performance, technology skills, English proficiency and work experience.

Moreover, it is common for employers to seek candidates who have a range of 21st century professional capabilities such as generic, adaptive, key, soft, life, professional and interpersonal skills.

These high expectations are considered one of the biggest obstacles hindering recent graduates from obtaining employment and a consequence is that there are a large number of local graduates looking for jobs every year and a large number of employers who cannot find enough skilled workers.

Student preparation

The final factor contributing to the high unemployment problem in Indonesia is the graduates themselves. To date, lots of attention has been paid to macro- and meso-level factors and there has been little discussion or investigation of what is happening at the individual level. At this level, a range of factors can determine graduates’ employment outcomes, including early career plans, social networks, cultural understanding and communication skills.

Rich evidence has been found that Indonesian graduates often do not have an early career plan. Students frequently only start looking for jobs on graduation. For example, research conducted by Anissa Lestari Kadiyono et al in West Java, Indonesia, in 2020 reveals that 52.9% of participant students were unclear and unconfident about their work identity and career goals.

In the study, the students who had an early career plan could navigate employment issues better because they had richer insights and resources. It was also more common for those with a clear career plan to seek work experience through entrepreneurship activities and various real-life experiences. As a result, students could cognitively understand the benefits and drawbacks of their careers and could effectively adjust their career trajectories.

Social networks

In many cases, graduates used social networks to obtain jobs, as a 2019 study by William Vincent Setiawan et al has shown. These networks come from family businesses, colleagues and acquaintances who work for a particular company. Students who have broad networks can easily get references for job opportunities.

Another important issue contributing to graduates’ unemployment issues is local cultural understanding and communication skills. Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world. Its territory covers an area of one million square kilometres and is made up of more than 17,000 islands, with a large population of 265 million people. The country has a diverse range of cultures and languages.

This creates a challenge for graduates who must learn and understand different cultural values so that they can find their way in a range of industries. Graduates often face problems adapting to new cultural practices and expectations. Graduates who learn and practise the local language and culture can work, communicate and build trust with local people more easily.

It is clear that Indonesian students can help to improve their own employment prospects. They should, for instance, work on developing a clearer career plan, building better relationships with industries, improving their communication skills, enriching their understanding of community culture and nurturing the ability to adapt and be resilient.

Sometimes graduates need to use all of those attributes interchangeably, depending on the situation. This is known as agentic capital. Developing these qualities enables them to leverage their formal qualifications and professional skills as well as to maintain and change their jobs easily.

A shared responsibility

The current state of graduate employability in Indonesia demonstrates that improving graduate employability is a responsibility that is shared among a number of stakeholders. Higher education institutions, industries and individuals should be better connected so that they can make better contributions to solving the problem.

The gap between employability preparation programmes and industry needs to be seriously considered. While higher education still mainly focuses on qualifications and a set of professional skills, industries and employment practices require students to have a range of resources that are greater than those human capital resources that universities teach.

In today’s competitive labour market, it is also vitally important for students to take more responsibility to develop the much-needed personal resources that universities cannot cover in their programmes.

Redi Pudyanti is a lecturer in the faculty of informatics at STMIK Primakara, Bali, Indonesia. She has done research on education, education technology and higher education. She is currently conducting research on graduate employability with a particular focus on how graduates develop strategies in navigating the labour market. Her work has been published in a number of journals and presented at both local and international conferences. Dr Thanh Pham is a senior lecturer in the faculty of education at Monash University, Australia. She has done substantial research on internationalisation of curricula and pedagogies. She is currently researching graduate employability with a focus on unpacking how graduates develop strategies to navigate barriers in the labour markets. Her research has been published in various journals and presented at many local and international conferences.