Hiring Beyond Grades: The First Step

Written by: Jahnavi Roy & Gwyneth Thong

Are grades still the best way to determine one’s calibre – or are skills beyond the curriculum a more effective and reliable way to determine one’s capabilities?

These were the questions answered during The First Step, Singapore’s first inter-varsity students’ union-led conference hosted by the Nanyang Technological University Students’ Union (NTUSU) to discuss student employability and overemphasis on academic grades.

“One of the biggest concerns of undergraduates is how employers are responding to the needs of the future workforce.” Mr Edward Lim, President of NTUSU

This prompted NTUSU to pioneer the project for students to attain the best headstart for their future upon graduation, broadening the definition of merit and moving beyond grades. Held on 30 January 2019 at One Farrer Hotel, the forum gathered over 300 CEOs and their human resource leaders, together with more than 250 undergraduates from the six autonomous local universities.

Minister for Education, Mr Ong Ye Kung, was the Guest of Honour and Patron of the event. Commending the initiative, he noted that the time has come for society to broaden its understanding of meritocracy and for “hiring practices and selection techniques to evolve in tandem”.

Attending as keynote speaker was Mr Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Group. He elucidated how the modern economy requires the integration of multiple disciplines to innovate, and the importance of being adaptable to the rapidly changing demands of the workforce today.

Mr Gupta also introduced how DBS Bank is using a new “virtual recruiter” called Jobs Intelligence Maestro (JIM), which uses artificial intelligence to screen resumes and compute the traits required for a job. It corresponds with another initiative that uses data science and assessment tests to evaluate applicants. This creates an alternative to the process of shortlisting through grades, broadening the scope of potential hires, and benefiting students with other kinds of expertise beyond grades.

There were also two panel sessions with industry leaders, educators, and students, which ignited critical dialogue on the traditional hiring mindset of valuing academic grades.

During the session, Managing Director of the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), Mr Chng Kai Fong, acknowledged that grades still remain as an indicator of one’s abilities and are an important consideration due to their reliability. However, he added that he prefers candidates who have “curiosity and a desire to explore”, and has rejected individuals with perfect grades who only offered textbook answers during interviews.

Deputy CEO of Enterprise Singapore, Ms Kathy Lai, also underscored the importance of valuing traits over grades, listing empathy, curiosity, resilience, and humility as key traits to look out for in an individual

Panellist Mr Danny Yong, founding partner of Dymon Asia Capital and an alumnus of NTU, echoed this by challenging employers to hire 10 per cent of incoming employees entirely based on their traits. He argues that this mindset shift can be beneficial for organisations.

“Why hire different? Diversity is for survival. We need to evolve, otherwise, we’re going to go out of business.” Mr Danny Yong, Founding Partner of Dymon Asia Capital

The role of universities in the employability equation was another key consideration. President of NTU, Professor Subra Suresh, observed that universities should consider what value-adds to one’s resume beyond the curriculum. University is a time of exploration, where not only specialised technical skills are gained. Character development, which defines and shapes an individual, is also a key takeaway from one’s time in university.

Following that, the event saw the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between NTUSU and the Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF), which was witnessed by Mr Ong Ye Kung. Of highlight from the MOU is the Transformative Leadership Programme, which allows NTU students to draw from SMF’s extensive network of over 3,000 companies to develop their career and leadership abilities. Selection will be based on skills and traits, instead of academic results.

The First Step was also featured on several media outlets, including The Straits Times and Channel NewsAsia, sparking a national conversation on the importance of hiring beyond grades. Several companies have also approached NTUSU for further discussion on how hiring practices can be improved for students.

Stepping into the working world has always been a concern for students. Met with the harsh reality of tough competition and an ever-changing economy, finding a job is a challenge for many. Leading the way, NTUSU has pushed the boundaries of student representation by championing the long-term interests of its students.

Mr Lim adds: “There is an enormous significance in student initiatives – employers have felt the flame, and the next step is just coming our way.”

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