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It's a fund, it's a scheme - no, it's SkillsFuture

This movement to reshape people's approach to jobs, skills and learning is needed to prepare them for the future.

It has been 1½ years since the term SkillsFuture was first introduced to Singaporeans and entered local usage. While interest has picked up, many people remain unsure what the term really means.

The minister tasked to lead this massive push to reshape how people approach jobs, skills and learning has himself acknowledged that the movement is not easy to understand. In a piece he penned for The Straits Times last month, Acting Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said people often mistake SkillsFuture for a funding scheme, training programme or organisation.

It is not any of these, he said. Rather, it is "everything we do to create a future that is different and better than today, in the way we look at work and careers, and the way we develop ourselves and our next generation".

Therein lies the problem - this is a policy that encompasses philosophy, which in turn makes it difficult to grasp. Nominated MP Randolph Tan, a labour economist, says it is precisely the philosophical nature of SkillsFuture that makes it harder to understand than most policies.

"It's quite rare to have policy presented as part-philosophy. SkillsFuture is also very long term," he says, adding: "It is meant to cover everyone who is potentially a member of the workforce, which is a massive challenge for policymakers."

As he points out, SkillsFuture aims not just to plug immediate skills gaps but to meet the long-term needs and interests of stakeholders, from business owners to students. For society, it is a reminder to relook current assumptions, including the decades-long chase after paper qualifications, especially a university degree.

Little wonder then that much of the confusion over SkillsFuture centres on what it means for many young people's dreams - and that of their parents - for a place in university, as the surest route to a good job.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

TO GO TO UNI OR NOT?

Among polytechnic students, the SkillsFuture scheme known as Earn and Learn has gained some traction. They have heard from their lecturers that this scheme allows them to study and work at the same time.

Others say they have benefited from the Enhanced Internships that polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education are rolling out. These have more defined learning outcomes and better mentorship compared to other work attachment programmes.

A few know that the Government is promoting lifelong learning, and that means they can upgrade their skills later on while working but are unclear what this change means in practical terms.

Hospitality and tourism management graduate Tan Yue Ting, 20, admits that she is "not entirely sure what SkillsFuture is".

She has, however, decided to take a year's break between her polytechnic studies and univerity.

"I will be taking a gap year before I start university," she says, adding: "I plan to go to New Zealand for a year on a work holiday trip to find out more about the tourism industry there, and also to explore more choices before diving straight into a degree. I guess that's sort of what SkillsFuture is? To learn about the industry, and to get experience."

Yet it remains unclear what impact, if any, SkillsFuture is likely to have on pent-up demand for university education. The number of polytechnic students pursuing degrees has gone up over the years. Last year's local university intake had the highest ever proportion of polytechnic graduates at 33.9 per cent.

Students' aspirations have grown in tandem with the expansion of public university places. Diploma-holders interviewed for this piece said that in their view, a degree was the "minimum" in the job market, and that their parents preferred that they go to university before entering the job market.

A growing number of polytechnic graduates are also making the cut for more competitive undergraduate programmes such as law and medicine. While this may be an encouraging sign that the junior college route is no longer the only way to such "elite" courses, polytechnic officials seem a tad uncomfortable about these trends, choosing to say little for fear their comments go against the grain of the SkillsFuture movement.

Polytechnic administrators and educators seem unsure about what message to give students - should they encourage students to go on to university or to join the workforce first?

Singapore Polytechnic principal Tan Choon Shian says the polytechnics aim to help students get a better sense of what different jobs are like, so they can make better choices.

"Some will have results that give them both options - further studies or work," he says, adding: "We will not influence them either way, we let them decide.

"But for certain sectors like food manufacturing where we have deep partnerships with employers and we know they have good plans for employees, we may advise students to take on work experience first," he says.

Associate Professor Randolph Tan is of the view that "deferring a degree is not a negative thing if you're not exactly sure what you want to do". That's because "training and working can put you in a better position for the future, when you make decisions at a more mature age", he says.

FUTURE SHOCK

To make sense of SkillsFuture, people have to grasp that the world they live in is changing in ways and at a speed not seen in the past. Governments around the world, and that includes Singapore's, are much less able to predict and plan for medium- to long-term needs in education and manpower. That is why Singaporeans can no longer depend on the Government to tell them what to study and where the jobs will be.

One major source of concern is future unemployment and under-employment, especially among university graduates. The graduate gluts in Taiwan and South Korea show that a university degree is no guarantee of continued success in the workforce, despite the prospect of higher salaries.

As education policy expert Jason Tan from the National Institute of Education observes: "Today the field you are in may be hot, but that may not be the case down the road."

Prof Randolph Tan makes the link between these changes and the need for SkillsFuture.

"SkillsFuture is about an individual's viability in the workforce in the long run," he says. "A lot of young people are unprepared for the needs of the workforce. They can get in but how viable their skills are in the long run is another question."

Associate Professor Jason Tan points out that another complication is that people's interests change over time. "What interests you in your late teens may not be the same 10 years later," he says.

That is why there is a strong emphasis on self-discovery in SkillsFuture with the education system moving towards giving students more time and space to learn about their likes and interests, so they can identify their inclinations even at a young age.

Primary and secondary schools now offer students more choice in niche programmes that range from robotics to environmental issues to the arts and music, where they can develop their interests and discover their strengths beyond academic learning.

Mr Ong, the Acting Education Minister, summed up SkillsFuture in three ideas: mastery of skills, a broader and more inclusive meritocracy, and finally, a personal enterprise.

At the national level, it is a drive to help Singaporeans develop skills for the future which looks to become more challenging.

This effort is especially crucial for a country which counts human capital as its main resource. Singapore has to build a strong local core which can offer relevant skills, and learn new ones to stay ahead of the changing workplace trends.

Ultimately, though, SkillsFuture is a personal endeavour. It may be applied in different ways at different ages, but the message is consistent - Singaporeans have to continually strive to improve themselves and their skills.

That starts with individuals taking ownership of their careers and responsibility for their decisions, from students exploring their strengths and deciding which courses and careers to pursue, to people taking up an interest even after retirement.

As people learn to better understand themselves, they can take an honest look at both their strengths and weaknesses and work out the necessary steps to improve.

As students examine and reflect on the skills and qualifications they have earned, they may realise the next step may not always be to score yet another paper qualification. It may instead be to hone a skill or craft and to do so on the job rather than in a classroom.

Whichever path individuals choose, the hope is that along the way, they grow not just as workers but as persons able to add value to society and achieve mastery in their fields.

Says Mr Tan of Singapore Polytechnic, who is also a member of the SkillsFuture Council : "For the individual, it is a choice and a journey of mastery, pride and success. One needs to learn all the time. Collectively, the community will recognise such mastery and celebrate such learners."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2016, with the headline 'It's a fund, it's a scheme - no it's SkillsFuture'. Print Edition | Subscribe