Even at 80, you can learn with SkillsFuture Credit

Over $1 billion a year from now till 2020 will be poured into continued education under Budget 2015's SkillsFuture plan. Walter Sim speaks to Ms Grace Yow, 57, a member of the SkillsFuture Council, and managing director of life sciences firm Fluidigm Singapore, about skills over degrees, and lifelong learning.

  • Why is it so important for SkillsFuture to be a formalised movement?

The Government can then provide support and also integrate the efforts of key stakeholders involved, namely the individuals, unions, training providers as well as employers.

This integrated framework will help a lot because it involves changing mindsets, getting employers to recognise skills and mastery, not just academic qualifications, and for everyone to take up new skills and knowledge to stay relevant.

The ultimate goal is to help everyone understand that we want to recognise skills and mastery, not just focus on academic qualifications. Regardless of what the starting point is, you have a chance to advance in your career based on skills mastery. That's what is unique about this SkillsFuture Council effort.

  • But how will employers be encouraged to do so? Now, degree holders tend to earn more, and so it could be a reason for non- degree holders to pursue a degree before entering the workforce.

This will come with time and we must persevere. Employers need to recognise that what is more important are skill sets. For example, in our case, (only if) we are looking for someone to do specialised jobs like pure research, then it is important to have academic qualifications.

But by and large, a lot of jobs require skills that are more important and outweigh qualifications. If you look at any job description, 90 per cent of it says you need certain types of skills but only one sentence says you need a degree or a diploma.

Companies will need to give their workers the same advancement opportunities and salaries, or they will lose people.

They need a compensation structure that is commensurate with the skills needed. But the incentive for them is that they get to keep good people whom they have invested efforts in.

  • And for the students?

Pursuing paper qualifications has become a deeply entrenched culture. Some parents will say: "You have the means. Continue, finish your degree, and you will have better chances later."

That has to change. Many students realise only after they jump into a degree or diploma in a certain discipline that it's not their cup of tea. Then they have to decide whether to be stuck in a career they're not interested in.

So we want to see how we can acquaint them with the industry. There're already initiatives on career counselling to help students understand their opportunities, so they can make informed choices. But we need to help them better appreciate their strengths and then develop them, so that they can contribute more effectively to the workplace.

You can still advance and get a degree after that. If you have aspirations to deepen your skills, we have the study awards. Then if you have more experience, we also have the SkillsFuture fellowships. We have a slew of initiatives which can help them continue their learning journey throughout life.

  • Most, if not all, polytechnics and ITE already have some form of internship programme. So how is the Earn and Learn work-study programme any different?

This came about with industry feedback. There is a gap in what employers want and need, and what we have from the schools.

Some internships for polytechnic students lasted only one month in the past. They end up being treated as an extra pair of hands to do jobs that are not really relevant. That's where these internships fail and we realised a problem.

Employers also need to appoint mentors and map out what the students will be doing over the internship period. Under Earn and Learn, students will be embedded in the company for between 12 and 18 months. So they will have a chance to be trained and really understand the industry, to be able to effectively contribute.

Employers can no longer see them as temporary help and will be more invested in them.

At the same time, it is to their benefit to groom and attract the students to join them after they graduate. To do this, there can be incentives to retain them, like courses or sponsoring them for further studies later on.

But the key message is that the internships will give students prolonged exposure where they get to be effectively hands-on on the job and appreciate the environment.

  • But internships are also meant for students to dip their toes in the water. What if midway through an Earn and Learn stint, they realise the job is not for them?

Employers will have a chance to interview candidates first to assess their suitability. Of course, there is a chance that the students may opt out later on, but we have a sign-on incentive of $5,000. If they drop out, they will not get it.

  • Will Earn and Learn replace internships that are more short-term?

Summer internships will not be affected. There are students who want to gain exposure and are taking the initiative to look for jobs and opportunities.

Such regular internships will be on top of Earn and Learn, which is open only to a certain number of places at the ITE and polytechnic level, and is targeted only at a few selected sectors at this point.

  • Singaporeans aged 25 and above will get SkillsFuture Credit (consisting of an initial $500, and which will be topped up at intervals), which can be used for work skill-related courses. Why make it available to everybody above 25?

We're targeting those already in the workforce. And we're also extending it to those in their 80s. That's where we need to change a stereotype - being old does not mean they can't continue to learn.

We're promoting lifelong learning. We do not want to set any threshold where people who are, say, 70, cannot learn anymore. We must continue to upgrade ourselves and there are old folk who still want to learn. It's not that we're taking them back to school but there are different skills they can acquire.

  • The SkillsFuture Credit is specifically for 'work skills'. What if I'm very interested in learning how to play the guitar or learning another language. Does it count?

For now it's targeted at work-related skills tied to specific sectors. And it does not necessarily need to be based on what you are doing at the moment.

For example, if you're in engineering but you're looking to pursue a culinary skill - you can still do that with the SkillsFuture Credit. You need not do an engineering course to use the credit.

Technology and globalisation are changing the nature of jobs in the future. It is important that Singaporeans upgrade their work skills to stay relevant.

  • How will you convince those in their 40s and 50s about the importance of skills upgrading?

There would be resistance for various reasons. One is a "face" thing. To go back to class with youngsters is one thing to overcome. Another reason might be family commitments. If it's in the evenings, there might be difficulties. We have to take all these into consideration in structuring the programme.

What we could do is to promote more e-learning courses. Of course, people need to be comfortable with using the computer.

  • Will these new measures be enough to help them beat the resistance? I spoke to a 43-year-old cabby who thinks it will be of no benefit to him as he needs to work.

We may need to spend a lot more effort with this group, because if someone is already working, he may then question the need to go back to school. We don't expect these mindset changes overnight. But if you look at it another way, everyone is learning all the time, such as technicians picking up new technology on the job.

It's just formalising this so that the skills will be in their skills inventory and will be recognised by employers. So that may help motivate them to participate actively.

  • Even so, some experts have observed ageism in the workplace. SkillsFuture may increase the employability of this group, but will it help them get a job?

We have career counsellors tied to SkillsFuture, who can help them look at possible sectors they can go into and the kinds of skills they will need to acquire.

In the Sectoral Manpower Plans, we will also set out a skills framework indicating what an employee needs to have to join and then grow in a particular sector.

It is not that these 40-somethings do not have any skills. What they have is valuable but, in an evolving market where certain industries may be made obsolete, they may need to acquire new skills to complement what they already have, so that they can now move into another sector.

  • How will SkillsFuture mitigate high turnover in the workplace? After all, employers will need to invest quite a bit in their employees.

With SkillsFuture comes skills mastery. If they can acquire a certain skill set, it is something that can help them in advancing in their career. Having it in the form of an official structure then provides a clear progression path.

This means employers must put in effort to build a skills career path for their staff. Employees will have to then continue to upgrade. All this does not just come to them on a silver platter.

Details of the Sectoral Manpower Plans are being fleshed out but we hope to be able to help reduce the amount of turnover that's related to people leaving because they're not given a chance to grow in their career.

  • How has your work experience allowed you to contribute to the SkillsFuture Council?

When I entered the workforce in 1978 I was equipped only with a diploma in electrical engineering (from Singapore Polytechnic).

I joined National Semiconductor, although nothing in school had taught me to design or analyse semiconductors. The company invested in me to provide me with the right skill sets. In turn, I benefited a lot from on-the-job training and mentorship.

The company gave me opportunities to grow and there was no glass ceiling. I was promoted very much based on my skills, experience and contributions. It was only when I became an engineering manager in the 1990s that I continued my studies part-time and got my engineering degree.

I've spent 20-odd years in the same industry but I've not stagnated. I was exposed to different job functions, moving across departments, from quality assurance to engineering, then to operations management. That's why I felt I could contribute to the council.

waltsim@sph.com.sg

To learn more about SkillsFuture, visit www.skillsfuture.sg.