The future of work

The future need not be scary for workers

It may mean several careers and getting new skills , but one can embrace the change

What will it be like to wake up and go to work in 2030?

Will we need to leave the house and step into an actual office?

Are we employed by one company or contracted to a series of them? Can we even assume that all our colleagues are human - or could some of them be robots and invisible algorithms housed within computers?

These are the questions being asked today as advancements in everything from online communications to artificial intelligence, and changing personal work-life priorities, combine to not just reshape a nation's workforce, but also redefine the very concept of work.

In Singapore, the situation is compounded by a fast-ageing population that will see one in five Singaporeans being above the age of 65 in less than 20 years' time.

 

This means that the average working Singaporean today will eventually be part of a huge army of older workers, in a country wanting to build its reputation as a smart nation and one of the most technologically advanced and connected societies in the world.

Many may find themselves starting over and embarking on new careers twice or more in their working lives.

That is a scary thought for many of us, so what action can we take today to cushion the impact of these changes?


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

As the panellists that formed the The Straits Times Future Economy Roundtable on Manpower debated the issues, two things became clear to me. The first is that in 2030, technology can work to the advantage of the Singapore worker, not against it. This is unlike the situation for the current cohort of older workers in Singapore, who spent much of their working lives in the pre-Internet era.

Today, technology is already making the integration of work and life more seamless. It has enabled freelancers and contract workers to flourish, and there is no reason why hipsters and stay-at-home young mothers should be the only ones taking advantage of the change. The challenge will be to change the mindset of both workers and employers.

Singapore's future silver workforce, however, will have spent most of their lives connected online at work and at home, via computers and mobile devices.

They should have no problems learning how to use new workplace applications and functioning remotely from home.

This will be a great help to older workers who may have to deal with physical constraints that come with age. Some may not be able to travel to the office.

Others may not be able to work a full eight- or nine-hour day, and indeed there will be those who simply will not want to.

Today, technology is already making the integration of work and life more seamless.

It has enabled freelancers and contract workers to flourish, and there is no reason why hipsters and stay-at-home young mothers should be the only ones taking advantage of the change.

The challenge will be to change the mindset of both workers and employers.

Workers need to get used to the idea of not having one boss in one company, of not getting a steady monthly salary that is commensurate with their seniority. They need to not only embrace, but also learn to enjoy the flexibility that the future of work brings.

 

Today, many millennials do not want to be tied to the fortunes of one employer and be subject to the ups and downs that come with shorter business cycles and the entry of digital disruptors.

 

Some of that attitude needs to rub off on their risk-averse seniors.

Companies also need to be more open with their hiring practices and take not just older workers, but older talent from a completely different industry, as long as they have the relevant skills.

Here, technology can also help. Platforms like LinkedIn allow for workers to describe not just who they worked for but what they did, and companies need to use big data tools to look deeper into employee histories to find the right match with the skills they want.

That brings me to the second big issue that struck me at the Roundtable discussion: What exactly are these skills that will be in demand in 2030?

The Government has launched SkillsFuture, an ambitious national training programme to help professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) acquire new skills for tomorrow.

But how does a PMET worker know which skills to pick up, amid the hundreds and thousands of courses on offer?

How does the Government ensure people do not just plough into the latest fad (which today is probably "coding"), only to find another mismatch in supply and demand of such skills 10 or 20 years down the road?

Much more work needs to be done in this area, going by the early feedback from those who have peeked into the SkillsFuture portal.

The platform is there, but re-skilling workers for the future is going to take much more than a government handout and a software solution.

The clue that Workforce Development Agency chief Ng Cher Pong gave during the roundtable is a good one.

He said that what workers should try to pick up are "horizontal skills" which can be used across different industries and companies.

BUILDING ON EXISTING SKILLS

Data science, or the ability to analyse and interpret data, is one such example. Other more mundane examples could include variants of customer service excellence - how to deal with elderly customers, for instance, or how to be a telemarketer.

Even so, which horizontal skill should one pick up?

That would depend, it seems, on what skills or expertise a worker already possesses.

Data science, for example, might be a good adjunct to someone who was trained in mathematics or has worked with statistics.

Telemarketing could be a good fit for someone who was previously in marketing or communications.

This is why even simple online tools would be useful to help people navigate the maze of possibilities that comes with re-skilling for the future.

Universities and polytechnics can also play a big role. If someone studied business administration in the 1990s at the National University of Singapore (NUS), then the university would have records of which modules he took.

Based on that information, NUS could conceivably recommend to him, 20 years later, what courses he should take to build on what he has learnt. The worker could funnel his options further based on his work experience and so on.

In fact, NUS could even go into providing some of those courses for its alumni. It is not rocket science, just good after-sales service.

Assuming we can make these mindset changes and give workers the guidance they need, the future need not seem intimidating or scary, but worth looking forward to instead.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'The future of work The future need not be scary for workers'. Print Edition | Subscribe