The Straits Times says

Focusing on 21st-century skills

The change sweeping through workplaces and economies has disoriented so many people so sharply that many in developed nations are taking out their anger on the political establishment. This can be self-defeating when nations revert to anti-trade policies that shrink the overall pie.

Singapore hopes to buck the trend through job creation and comprehensive skills training for workers - so they can take up new jobs when displaced from their old ones. Given the changes afoot, it is no exaggeration to say that in today's world, skills training has become a matter of economic life and death. Thus, for societies in general, the smart thing to do is to make learning at all ages a way of life and training at all levels a way of effectively fulfilling industry needs.

Here, providing a one-stop online marketplace of courses and training providers is the easier part of such an exercise. Much harder are substantive goals, like ensuring the exercise is not a paper chase but is one that imparts skills vitally needed by businesses to compete successfully. That requires close coordination among all players. For example, the skills that will be in demand by employers tomorrow must be adequately taught by courses being run today.

Importantly, young and adult learners need support to orient themselves in the new skills landscape. The Government has put in place an ambitious, well-funded adult learning framework known as SkillsFuture, which encompasses a wide range of training courses. But workers will benefit more when they know how to navigate the system and make it work for them. The ideal of course would be for everyone to take charge of his or her own skills upgrading. But it is a tall order as the majority of those displaced, or at risk of being so, might not be able to fathom the speed and direction of change. Giving them a helping hand is the thrust of the new SkillsFuture Engage, which Minister-in-charge Ong Ye Kung announced at a recent Straits Times forum. It ropes in community agencies - from unions to self-help groups - to reach out to workers and provide guidance in what he described as a "very complex training and education landscape".

Adult learning used to be regarded as just an option for most workers. Today, it is critical. This new demand, to ensure continued employment, will require a big investment of time and effort. But it will open opportunities for them to develop their potential and interests throughout life.

As for employers, they too must play their part. Investing in workers is a source of competitive advantage and that is indeed what distinguishes leading companies from others, as Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam noted recently. Skills development must become a pervasive part of business culture here, so the nation is better equipped to deal with disruptions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2016, with the headline 'Focusing on 21st-century skills'. Print Edition | Subscribe