Freelance filmmaker Anita Reza Zein had grown used to jam-packed production schedules requiring her to put in long hours and run on little sleep. Until Covid-19 struck.
Today, the talented Indonesian is suddenly free. With five projects on hold and many more potentially cancelled, she now spends her time working on a personal project, doing research for her work and occasionally going for a ride on a bicycle.
“I feel calm and patient although I’m jobless. Maybe because it’s still the third week [of social distancing] and I still have enough savings from my previous work,” said the 26-year-old, who is from Yogyakarta. “But I imagine life will become tougher in the next few months if the situation gets worse.”
Like her, millions of youths are now part of a job market in Southeast Asia that has been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. They are the unlucky cohort of 2020 whose fortunes have changed so drastically, so quickly.
Just three months ago, many eager graduates were about to partake in a strong economy and possibly land decent pay cheques.
Today, job offers are being withdrawn and hiring halted, leading to a spike in regional youth unemployment in the short term. In the long term, the effects on the Covid-19 cohort could lead to wider social and political problems.
For young jobseekers, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic could hurt even more, with companies unwilling to open up new jobs for them.
“My clients who were open to fresh graduates previously have realigned searches [for candidates] who have at least one year of experience, as it’s a lot faster for someone with experience to scale up quickly and contribute,” said Joanne Pek, a recruiter at Cornerstone Global Partners’ Singapore office.
For many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) such as Singapore-based restaurant chain The Soup Spoon, saving jobs – rather than recruiting – is the priority.
“We don’t want to let anyone go during this period, so we’re focused on protecting jobs,” said co-founder and director Benedict Leow, who employs some 250 workers.
This could create “lasting scarring” on the graduates this year, said labour economist Walter Theseira.
“If their careers start badly, it would affect their earnings for a number of years because they would lack the same experience as peers who started in a more secure position,” the associate professor of economics at Singapore University of Social Sciences said.
Shrinking salaries and the downsizing of companies mean that graduates might have to seek out professions outside their areas of study to survive, said Grace Lee Hooi Yean, head of the Economics Department at Monash University, Malaysia.
She said youth unemployment in the country, which stands at 11.67 per cent, could rise sharply.
“This looming crisis could trap a generation of educated and capable youth in a limbo of unmet expectations and lasting vulnerability if the graduates are not ready to face reality and adapt to the new challenges,” she said.
This is fast becoming the reality for final-year medical student Rebecca K. Somasundaram, who has been left without a job due to the pandemic.
After being offered a residency programme at a top specialist hospital in Kuala Lumpur, she was notified a month ago that her placement had been made void until further notice. This has thrown the 24-year-old’s plans into disarray as she was hoping to enter the workforce soon to pay off her student debts. Her plans to get married next year have also been put on hold temporarily.
“I am in constant talks with the hospital to see if there is any way I can join them soon but seeing how things are unfolding so quickly, I am slowly losing hope,” she said.
Over in Indonesia, the pandemic will trigger job losses on a national scale. To combat this, the government would need to introduce strong fiscal measures and beef up its social protection policies, said the country’s former minister of finance Muhamad Chatib Basri.
Many people on lower incomes tend to work in the extraction industry, such as mining and palm oil, and these are the first industries hit due to the global slowdown.
“The rich will be able to brave the storm, but the poor have no means to do so,” he said.
“There are plans to implement large-scale subsidised traineeships, which may be more palatable to companies which are worried about taking on permanent headcount this year,” he noted. “As the economic situation improves, they can be converted to permanent positions.”
While jobs were being created for fresh graduates, many would still have to temper their expectations, such as taking jobs with lower starting pay, said DBS Bank economist Irvin Seah.
“There are still some jobs to go around. There are still some companies that may need workers. But they will need to be realistic,” he said.
For instance, despite the downturn, Singapore telco Singtel expects to recruit over 300 fresh graduates for various permanent positions this year, according to Aileen Tan, the company’s Group Chief Human Resources Officer. Many of the new hires will be in new growth areas such as the Internet of Things, analytics and cloud.
Other companies that continue to hire include those in tech across the region, including e-commerce giant Shopee, food-delivery service Foodpanda and Amazon.
In Australia, Borland suggested helping young people to remain plugged into the labour market through government-funded paid internships, or even offering them loans to go for further studies and prevent a spell of unemployment.
For now, while some young jobseekers are taking a wait-and-see approach, the reality is hitting hard for others.
Final-year National University of Singapore student H.P. Tan had all but secured a job at a public relations firm last month, after three rounds of interviews.
The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences undergraduate was rejected via an email from the agency, which said that they could no longer hire after Covid-19 started to drastically cut business.
“When I got that rejection, it was a turning point. I didn’t think I would be directly impacted,” said the 23-year-old.
“I also applied to a few other agencies but the response has been slow, so I am now freaking out at the possibility of not being able to find a job after graduation.”
Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.