Thinking Aloud

Get set for job disruption

A key challenge for Singapore is how to ensure good jobs for people amid slowing growth, technological changes

Mr Khaw Boon Wan is the man of the moment for having taken on the troubled transport portfolio in the new Cabinet line-up and well deserves the admiration heaped on him.

There is, however, another mobility issue as deserving of attention - social mobility. As economic growth slows, inequality sets in and breakthroughs in technology disrupt an ever-growing spectrum of jobs, a key challenge for Singapore is how to ensure good jobs for people of different ages, abilities and needs.

As a born and bred Singaporean, I have long known unemployment as a concept but not concrete reality.

I have not experienced difficulties in getting a job. My parents have always been employed. My father, who is 75 years old, still works.

That is the luxury of living in an economy where jobs have - for the most part - been plentiful.

But when I went to California five years ago, I saw up close what job disruption looked like.


ST ILLUSTRATION : ADAM LEE

I was there for 10 months on a journalism fellowship. The upheaval in the United States newspaper industry - due to a proliferation of free news sources online - had begun. Middle-aged journalists were losing the only job they had ever known and being forced to reinvent themselves.

My course mates included a brand-name investigative journalist who took a buy-out rather than wait out the slow death of the newspaper she worked at, a former China correspondent for the Washington Post who struggled for years to find a replacement job after quitting, and a former correspondent for Time magazine who had been at the front lines of the Rwandan genocide. He, too, was jobless at the time but later joined the United Nations refugee service.

But the story that really jolted me was of a veteran correspondent who had pioneered the technology beat at The New York Times. As he hit his early 50s, he had been wooed away from the Times by a leading business magazine, only to find himself out of a job within months of being hired. He later joined a non-profit news organisation funded by a billionaire philanthropist but lost that job barely two years later after a merger that followed the founder's death.

It was sobering for me to be in an environment where job loss and uncertainty were the norm. That, though, may be the new reality for more workers here in the not-too-distant future.

Unemployment among PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technical staff) has already emerged as a national concern. The evidence? The new wage subsidy announced earlier this year for employers that hire jobless PMETs above the age of 40.

At the recent Singapore Summit, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the wave of technology in robotics and artificial intelligence that seeks to "automate intellectual labour". This new challenge, he said, means human beings must be able to keep training themselves in more complex skills.

At this juncture, it's worth pointing out that the two mobility challenges facing Singapore are different in nature.

The transport problem is a technical challenge - the know-how to fix it already exists.

Not so for the task of getting workers ready for the jobs of the future. That is, instead, an adaptive challenge, one that "forces a response that is currently outside our repertoire", to quote Harvard don Ronald Heifetz whose research focuses on how to build adaptive capacity.

An adaptive challenge, he says, is one "where our current know-how just isn't quite sufficient, where there isn't an expert on the subject who can just fix the problem, where our current organisational design or structure, stories, narratives, metaphors, don't do the job sufficiently".

The disruption to jobs due to technology is so great, no one can claim to know what jobs will look like in the next decade, let alone the rest of the 21st century, so write Australian academics Belinda Probert and Shirley Alexander in a commentary published on The Conversation website.

They cite car manufacturing as one sector where hundreds of thousands of jobs are disappearing. "We also cannot assume that employment in health and human services will continue to expand in their place," they add. "Globally, millions of dollars are being invested in robotic monitors, nurses and companions for the elderly. The driverless car is almost with us, meaning that even Uber's moment in the sun may be brief."

Education will be key to equipping students and workers for this future economy but it cannot be a matter of relying solely or even mainly on the two newly appointed Acting Ministers for Education, Mr Ng Chee Meng and Mr Ong Ye Kung, to provide the answers and save the day. Increasingly, learning and career planning will have to be lifelong and self-directed. The Government's job will be to build the infrastructure to support such self-directed learning. But it will be up to individuals to take up the opportunities and tap the schemes and funds on offer.

It is in the nature of adaptive challenges that people must be part of the solution, says Prof Heifetz. "Authority structures can do their part but adaptive challenges require people to do their part because... you can't take the problem off people's shoulders and give them a solution."

Rather, people's "ownership of the problem and taking responsibility for it becomes part of the solution itself", he adds.

As a first step, Singaporeans can consider what skills they want to learn. Starting next year, the Government will put money where its mouth is, by opening individual SkillsFuture Credit accounts for every Singaporean aged 25 and older. Every eligible citizen will receive an initial grant of $500 which they can use to pay for training courses.

The shift is clear. No longer will workers depend on government or employers to tell them what to learn or when. Now, workers decide for themselves and chart their own way forward. Each one has the autonomy to decide on his own mobility.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'Get set for job disruption'. Print Edition | Subscribe