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Primer

Preparing for the economy of the future

This is the first of 12 primers on various current affairs issues, published as part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times- Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

On paper, the national SkillsFuture drive - which will help chart the next phase of Singapore's development - gets top marks for preparing Singaporeans for constant change.

Many of the jobs available today, such as social media specialists, Uber drivers and market research data miners, were unheard of a decade ago. Similarly, some jobs today may not exist in 10 years' time.

In the push for an innovation-driven economy, it is commendable that the Government is taking bold steps to help young Singaporeans to explore their passions, and to upgrade the skills of the adults throughout life, regardless of starting points.

Currently, there is a plethora of initiatives introduced under the SkillsFuture umbrella, aimed at developing deep skills and lifelong learning in Singaporeans, whether they are in school, mid-career or in their silver years.

Putting programmes in place is the relatively easy part of dealing with change. The tough part is changing mindsets.

Last November, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum that it is not a matter of Government initiatives and training schemes, but a matter of culture - taking pride in mastery.

He added that Singapore needs to change its education culture - to move away from an obsession with children's grades and focus more on giving them diverse experiences.

A SkillsFuture roadshow held by the Workforce Development Agency. Over 12,000 courses - from baking to financial literacy - have been rolled out for Singaporeans aged 25 and above to enrol in to hone their craft or learn a new skill.
A SkillsFuture roadshow held by the Workforce Development Agency. Over 12,000 courses - from baking to financial literacy - have been rolled out for Singaporeans aged 25 and above to enrol in to hone their craft or learn a new skill. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

For decades, the conventional route for many young Singaporeans has been to secure a place at a recognised university and graduate with a good degree, and end the journey with a stable job with a decent starting salary.

Now, more Singaporeans are pursuing a university education - partly a result of there being more universities and private institutions here. And many see a degree at the end of their 20 or so years of education.

No more mugging, no more tuition and no more examinations.

  • THE STRAITS TIMES MINISTRY OF EDUCATION NATIONAL CURRENTS AFFAIR QUIZ

  • About The Big Quiz

    This primer is part of The Straits Times' initiative to discuss issues of national concern. Each Monday, the paper's journalists will address burning questions in the Opinion section, offering unique Singaporean perspectives on complex issues.

    The primers, as well as five campus talks helmed by editors and correspondents, are part of this paper's outreach programme called The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz, nicknamed The Big Quiz.

    The nationwide event, whose presenting sponsor is the Singapore Press Holdings Foundation, aims to promote the understanding of civics among pre-university students.

    Talks by ST journalists and quiz rounds will be held on:

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In the latest General Household Survey released by the Statistics Department earlier this month, the proportion of non-student residents with university qualifications has risen over the years.

Among those aged 25 years and above, 28.2 per cent had university qualifications in 2015, up from 23.7 per cent in 2010.

For Singaporeans, the paper chase has become a culture.

And with kiasuism, the move away from the paper chase then boils down to who is bold enough to take the first step onto an unconventional path.

The success of SkillsFuture hinges not just on students' involvement, but also commitment from all stakeholders, including parents, employers and institutions.

Many parents are fine with their children chasing their dreams; but first, they must get a decent degree as a back-up in case they fail. Parents must ease up on this mindset.

Meanwhile, it is unrealistic to expect employers to change their selection criteria for jobs away from paper qualifications quickly.

A human resource expert pointed out that the first line in most job requirements is still about qualifications, and many firms require a diploma or degree.

But the good work of some stakeholders who are moving things forward should not be ignored.

There are certain industries, such as technology and services, that have recognised the importance of upskilling their employees.

The hotel industry, for instance, became the first sector last year to get a dedicated five-year manpower plan under SkillsFuture. The plan outlines measures to upgrade and retain workers, a framework of new skills needed, and opportunities for career progression.

The plan is important, with the number of hotel rooms due to rise by 20 per cent by 2020, boosting demand for workers.

While parents and employers are slowly warming up to the national effort, educational institutions are steaming ahead.

Many institutions here have adopted a variety of schemes that are aligned with SkillsFuture.

For instance, education and career guidance have been made available in primary schools as well as universities.

This allows young Singaporeans to discover their passions early and achieve their goals through informed decisions on what to study and what suits them.

In schools, activities are held to help students explore their interests and plan their education. Trained counsellors provide counselling or group guidance in education and career choices.

At the polytechnics and Institute of Technical Education, students go through lessons, mentoring sessions and industry visits under the Education and Career Guidance curriculum.

To conduct such activities, polytechnic lecturers have gone for training in skills such as helping students with career goal-setting.

Students from the publicly funded universities, too, can access career counselling services and preparation programmes to help them get ready for their careers.

The move to provide career guidance to the young is good as many are unsure of what they want in life.

The introduction of career guidance as early as at the primary school level reflects the Government's focus in helping people fulfil their aspirations.

A bolder step which it has taken is the SkillsFuture Credit, which can be seen as an investment in fostering a lifelong learning culture among Singaporeans.

From this year, more than two million people can start using $500 in credit each to pay for skills-based classes.

More than $1 billion has been set aside to fund this initiative, in a bid to encourage Singaporeans to continue learning through life.

To ensure they have the skills employers want, workers need to upgrade their competencies constantly to stay relevant.

Over 12,000 courses - from baking to financial literacy - are available to Singaporeans aged 25 and above to enrol in to hone their craft or learn a new skill.

With the shift towards deep skills and on-the-job experience - not just getting paper qualifications - graduating with a degree will no longer mark the end of one's educational journey.

This culture of lifelong learning will be built upon when a new statutory board, SkillsFuture Singapore, is set up by the end of this year to coordinate the drive for deeper skills.

In January, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, who will lead the Skillsfuture initiatives following the restructuring, noted that the change will gradually erase the lines between learning in school and training during employment.

"This will make us look at education differently - that it is no longer just confined to schools and institutes of higher learning, but is a lifelong pursuit of mastery and excellence," said Mr Ong, who was the Singapore Workforce Development Agency chief executive from 2005 to 2008.

Will SkillsFuture then change the learning landscape in the next decade?

Possibly.

But jobs will surely change. And they will probably change faster than institutions can put out degree or diploma courses preparing students for them.

The national upgrading drive may be the answer to this challenge, but it is still early days to see a sweeping change of mindset.

More has to be done if the Government wants to make it happen. The Civil Service must take the lead, in its employment practices and progression opportunities. It could perhaps do more to encourage individuals who lack strong educational backgrounds or academic qualifications, but possess the right skills, such as opening up avenues to help them progress further within the service.

Only then will more stakeholders, from employers to parents, have the confidence to shift from fixating on academic qualifications to embracing the importance of skills.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Preparing for the economy of the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe