Social capital is key for foreign students seeking jobs

Singapore is an advanced nation that places a significant emphasis on educational excellence as part of its economic strategy to nurture a highly qualified workforce. This makes Singapore a sought-after destination for overseas students, especially from China.

Furthermore, the job prospects for graduates in China have become increasingly challenging. The National Bureau of Statistics in China indicated that the unemployment rate reached a peak of 19.9% in July 2022. This is the highest level since January 2018, when it was at 9.6%.

Adding to its appeal as a choice destination for job seekers, Singapore has not embraced the ‘996’ work culture prevalent in China, which requires employees to work six days a week from 9am to 9pm.

According to a Singapore newspaper report in 2018, around 40% of Chinese students who had completed their studies in Singapore expressed an interest in staying on for work. However, Singapore’s job market is inherently competitive. The job hiring process can be challenging for foreigners to navigate.

The employability of Chinese graduates in Singapore is influenced by various factors: foreign employee policy, academic qualifications, networking, work experience, English-language proficiency, industry-specific skills and the availability of job vacancies.

Changing economic policy

The Ministry of Trade and Industry, Singapore revised its gross domestic product (GDP) forecast for Singapore, predicting a contraction of between 5% and 7% in 2020. An economic downturn has implications for the labour market, with a focus on government support directed towards safeguarding the livelihoods of Singapore citizens.

The government has also responded by tightening immigration requirements and reducing the number of foreign permits issued, including the Employment Pass (EP) and the Skill Pass (SP). As a result, foreign employees may face layoffs.

In its 2022 Singapore Budget, the Singapore government announced that the salary requirements for EP and SP permits will both be increased again. Employers who intend to hire foreign staff have to pay a higher premium.

Academic qualifications

Chinese graduates holding a degree from Singapore’s publicly funded autonomous universities, such as the National University of Singapore (NUS) or the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), have a higher likelihood of securing local jobs compared to those with qualifications from private tertiary schools.

The Singapore government’s Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015 recognises university education as a stepping stone to successful employment and career advancement.

NUS positions itself as a research-intensive, globally focused institution that develops students’ unique perspectives. Similarly, NTU enrols over 33,000 students in five colleges and numerous autonomous institutes and is often ranked highly – together with NUS – in global university rankings.

According to Poh Hoon June Teng et al, human capital is Singapore’s most valuable resource, and the country’s top universities are expected to produce graduates with the specific qualifications needed to meet Singapore’s economic needs.

Graduates with relevant qualifications, such as engineering, computer science and finance, are highly sought after in Singapore’s jobs market. As such, completing a degree from a prestigious Singapore university like NUS or NTU may increase the employability of Chinese graduates in Singapore.

It is therefore better to graduate from a reputable Singapore university, which may improve employability. At the same time, we can assume that human capital is influenced by governmental factors.

Recruitment changes

Due to the tightening of the EP application policy, higher salary requirements and additional scrutiny, it has become more difficult for companies to hire foreign talent. This leads to Chinese graduates and graduates of other foreign nationalities having to compete more for jobs. It is also crucial for companies to consider flexibility when hiring a foreign worker.

In recent years, several Chinese technology giants have set up their headquarters or a regional office in Singapore, using the country as a springboard to capture the Southeast Asian market. Chinese employees will use popular Chinese internet platforms such as ‘Zhihu’ and ‘Baidu Knows’ to share their work experience, leave their contact information and network with fellow Chinese in Singapore.

Hiring departments of these Chinese technology companies may reach out to their personal and professional networks to hire Chinese graduates who are a good fit for a position. Chinese technology companies may also encourage their employees to recommend Chinese hires for their Singapore office.

According to Janet Holmes, effective social networking involves creating both bonding and bridging ties which can be achieved through storytelling and dialogue.

On 12-13 May 2022, a panel discussion entitled “China Enterprise Association enters NUS” was held at the university with the objective of fostering friendship between Singapore university students and Chinese companies.

The aim was to provide students with an understanding of the current situation and prospects of Chinese companies in Singapore, and to explore and develop local talent for these companies. As Chinese graduates are also part of the local university student community, they were able to use the opportunity to network with the organisers and strengthen their interaction with them, thus expanding their social capital and enhancing their employability.


Social relationships can influence third parties involved in recruitment by ‘putting in a good word’, which can be decisive in selection situations. In other words, friendship is a resource.

Building good friendships to form a reliable social network in Singapore is important for Chinese graduates. There are many Singapore societal and community groups that encourage the public to join as volunteers. Chinese graduates can volunteer with such organisations. This could help enlarge their social network and help them obtain insights into the local working culture.

Networking helps shape social capital. Networking has the potential to influence the relational dimension of social capital. Increased interaction makes people more comfortable with one another and improves cooperation. Relationships foster trust and identity formation, making people more likely to share resources and assist others in need.

Strong social networks can boost a job seeker’s credentials by implying that they bring resources other than their own skills, abilities and knowledge.

Notably, social contacts have more influence when it comes to employability than other factors. A job search can be aided by having a social network of quality contacts. A referral or recommendation – be it a professional or personal contact – can help. Therefore, enhancing students’ social capital is vital for improving their employability.

A new labour market

The Singapore government has had to change its immigration policy in response to changing economic conditions and a new labour market: first, to secure employment for its citizens and also to attract more top foreign talent. Singapore companies may have to adjust their foreigner employment rates as a result of this government policy.

Chinese graduates may face challenges in finding employment if their field of study is not in high demand or if they lack local social capital. These factors will affect the employability of Chinese graduates in Singapore.

Furong Li is a researcher at the faculty of education at Monash University, Australia.