Preparing workers for future economy

Work in progress: Redesigning jobs, retooling mindsets

More than 100 training programmes, a clutch of Cabinet ministers putting their heads together, two major policies. No effort is spared in trying to train workers and redesign jobs for the future economy. Insight asks: Will they work?

It is one of the biggest helping hands to enable workers to retrain, as disruption plays havoc with job security.

SkillsFuture, introduced four years ago, is one of the key components of a new national emphasis on learning as a way of life, regardless of age or education.

Yet, momentous as this strategy shift has been, as is sometimes the way in policymaking, it came about in quite an uneventful way.

In 2014, the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review Committee was set up to look into improving career prospects for students from these institutions.

Around the same time, a group of public servants was working on the Continuing Education and Training Masterplan 2020, focused on people already in the workforce.

The two reviews came to the same conclusion: There must be a stronger, sustained link between education and employment if workers need to update their skills over and over again to adapt to the wave of changes brought by technology and globalisation.

Mr Ng Cher Pong, the man now charged with coordinating the SkillsFuture initiative as chief executive of SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), tells Insight: "It was more an evolution rather than a certain 'aha' moment, where you say, 'Hey, actually this is what we should do'."

  • 3,300 

    Number of Singaporeans placed in new jobs through Workforce Singapore's Professional Conversion Programmes last year.

  • 1,300 

    Number of such Singaporeans in 2016. 

Fast forward to today, and jobs are being created and made redundant so quickly that it has become a difficult task to form major policies for training and retraining workers, and designing jobs for them.

Questions coming thick and fast include: What is the speed and impact of technological change on work? What jobs will be gone in 20 years? What skills do people need to succeed at work?

The answers are not always clear.

Crystal ball-gazing is a fraught process, especially when trying to predict what kinds of jobs will be around in the next five years, let alone 20. With frequent disruptions to the economy, the famed Singapore style of long-term policymaking does not work as before.

Another hurdle is persuading workers that they need to reskill when they are busy working and have not lost their jobs. Companies, too, have been slow to respond to the call for training, fearing that their investments may benefit someone else when workers do not stay long enough in a job.

Unlike, say, infrastructure policies where outcomes are literally concrete, when it comes to getting people ready for the new world of work, the best-laid plans can produce nebulous results.

Still, the Government is betting that major policies such as SkillsFuture and Adapt and Grow will adequately prepare Singaporeans and Singapore for the future economy.

Insight asks: Will they work?

OPERATIONALLY READY JOB SEEKERS

The numbers show that the economy is growing, and jobs are being created. But for workers navigating the current employment landscape, things can be confusing.

There are sectors shedding many workers, yet employers bemoan a lack of skilled workers.

 

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing says some people have told him that "the economy is very confusing. Sometimes they tell me it is doing well, sometimes they tell me it's not doing well".

The key to bridging these two narratives, says Mr Chan - who is also labour chief - is to move people from the sectors that are slowing down to those that are doing well.

This is where government-funded skills training schemes, such as Workforce Singapore's (WSG) Professional Conversion Programmes (PCPs), come in.

The scheme places professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) in jobs or attachments in growth industries, where they then undergo training. When it was first launched in 2007, it was aimed at helping mid-career workers hoping to make a job switch.

It is now one of the key tools against skills mismatch, and extends to helping professionals prepare for new jobs in the new economy, even within the same company.

Ms Julia Ng, group director of the Enterprise Development Group at WSG, says her team learnt an important lesson after the global financial crisis hit in 2008.

The economy rebounded more quickly than expected, and retrenched workers who had not completed their training programmes appealed for the courses to be shortened so that they could ride on the recovery to get new jobs.

 
 
 

"We realised that PCPs had to be nimble enough to respond to market changes, so as to keep our workforce agile and workers ready to take on the next career in the shortest time possible," she says.

The scheme was refined. Courses were thus shortened, and people were placed in companies to be trained on the job.

Now, there are more than 100 such programmes, for occupations ranging from social workers to data analysts. Ms Ng says: "We can be approving at least one or two new PCPs a week."

Last year, 3,300 Singaporeans were placed in new jobs through the scheme, up from 1,300 in 2016.

Critics of such job training have said it is costly, and ask why companies are not paying to train their own workers.

To encourage employers to offer jobs for PCP, they can get wage support of up to $6,000 a month per worker, and this money is on top of training subsidies averaging $9,000 for a six-month course.

But Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo suggests that companies can always choose to leave Singapore if they cannot find the workers they need.

"So rather than tear our hair out and bemoan the fact that the companies need to be more proactive, I think we would rather be practical," she says.

"You want to be able to say to the companies, 'Look, if you do your part, you will get support'.

"It is a far better way to provide support to companies than by giving them tax breaks that they shouldn't get or artificially tilting the rules of the game in their favour."

Some have wondered just how long the workers stay in the new industries.

WSG chief executive Tan Choon Shian says while it will be easy to mandate a period employers and employees must stick with, the rules also have to be flexible enough to encourage companies to take a chance on new hires.

"Imagine you are dating and before the first date, the father of the other side says, 'I want to interview you. Are you serious or not?' Then the first date won't even happen," he says.

There is a fine balance needed, he explains. If a programme is too employer-centric, it may not be helpful for the job seeker. But if employer needs are not met, the programme will not take off.

Even within companies, it must make sense to the chief executive, the human resources department and the supervisors who will work with the new trainees, he says.

PCPs are one of the main tools in WSG's Adapt and Grow initiative. The Government announced in 2016 that it would commit an additional $35 million a year to support programmes under the initiative, and promised yet another $26 million a year last year.

In an environment where disruption affects the various sectors unevenly, measures have become more "targeted and surgical", says Mr Chan.

WSG launched three new programmes last July after staff noticed that some job seekers faced emotional issues, the lack of a clear action plan and a lack of networking opportunities.

Such programmes, and industry-specific PCPs, are like the candles on top of a birthday cake, says Mr Chan. The layers of the cake - "horizontal policies" which are broadbased and foundational - are still required, but increasingly, there is a need for more specific policies that still allow for some customisation to suit workers' and companies' different needs, he adds.

LEARNING WHILE WORKING

While Adapt and Grow seeks to treat the pain of transitions into new jobs and industries, on the flip side of the same coin is SkillsFuture, which aims to raise workers' immunity to the effects of disruption.

On the 18th-floor offices at 1, Marina Boulevard, Mr Ng and Mr Tan sit in adjacent rooms.

Their staff walk freely across the offices, and there is no clear demarcation of where SSG ends and WSG begins. The agencies even share the same website.

These are more than symbolic gestures, and are physical reminders that education and employment must be yoked seamlessly together as the country prepares its workforce for the future economy.

Four years since Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam first coined the name SkillsFuture, it has evolved beyond the recommendations of the two reviews, and those involved now describe it as a movement.

"We hope eventually to see a shift in societal culture," Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, who spearheads the initiative, tells Insight.

If lifelong learning becomes a way of life, having to constantly retrain and reskill will hopefully no longer seem like a daunting task for workers, so the theory goes.

The work of changing mindsets, though, starts in schools, which is why SkillsFuture is parked under the Ministry of Education as an integral part of the education system, adds Mr Ong.

Most people remember the initiative for one of its programmes, the SkillsFuture Credit.

It was rolled out with a big bang in 2016, with all Singaporeans 25 years and older given an individual learning account and $500 in credits to pay for courses offered by hundreds of training providers.

The Government has said it will make periodic top-ups to the account, though Mr Ong says there are no plans to do so for now.

The scheme is often criticised for being too broad, with some wondering why taxpayers are funding people to take courses in flower arrangement and Korean language.

Mr Ong says SkillsFuture Credit has achieved its purpose as long as it has raised awareness about the SkillsFuture initiative and got people excited about taking charge of their own learning. It is kept intentionally broad and not overly prescriptive, so that people can take whatever courses interest them.

To put things in perspective, he says, the $500 credit comes up to about $40 million a year, while funding that goes towards subsidising courses comes up to $700 million.

In all, the Government spends about $1 billion a year on SkillsFuture.

Besides the credit scheme, this covers a plethora of programmes for students and workers, such as study awards, work-study programmes and courses to explain emerging technologies and trends.

Asked if it is money well spent, Mr Ong says: "The issue of returns on training is one that has vexed policymakers for decades and I do not think we will have an answer and have a key performance indicator that measures and therefore says that 'I will be successful'."

SkillsFuture does not exist in isolation, and must be seen alongside other indicators, such as the good track record of the education system and quality of the well-regarded workforce, he adds.

SSG's Mr Ng says each programme under SkillsFuture is tracked, but the numbers tell only part of the story. What is more important is if cultural change has taken place, he adds.

GETTING COMPANIES ON BOARD

The best place for job-specific training is in companies themselves.

Mr Chan describes them as "living labs".

With the older model of teaching, he says, three to six months is needed to figure out what the market needs. The same amount of time is needed to craft a syllabus, and even more time is taken to mobilise and train workers, he says.

Workers emerge from such training with a "history degree", he quips. "Not as in a history subject, but a degree with historical knowledge."

Helping companies create bite-sized, timely courses is key to making the system work, he says.

The Government, unions, trade associations and business chambers have been working with companies on industry transformation maps which chart the changes expected in 23 key industries over a five-year period, and identify the skills required.

The plans, which come under the $4.5 billion Industry Transformation Programme, will help to create a culture in which "businesses are always transforming and people are always adapting", says Mrs Teo.

SSG set up an enterprise engagement office last month to reach out to more employers, and plans to focus on working with trade associations and business chambers this year, says Mr Ng.

WSG also has a team of about 80 to 100 people who liaise with employers and sector agencies.

Mr Tan says companies are becoming more proactive in requesting help to craft training plans for their workers.

Some banks, for example, have started intra-company PCPs to prepare their workers whose jobs are being disrupted, such as customer service officers who upgrade their skills and move into new roles, like serving customers through live chat or video teller machines.

Mr Ong says he is working to matchmake industry players with the institutes of higher learning to come up with more training courses.

The hope is that this will help to fast-track the development of an apprenticeship system here, where companies help to train people for the industry, he says.

In Germany and Switzerland, such systems took more than a century to build, but Singapore does not have the luxury of time.

The labour movement is also pitching in with its own bite-sized courses that people can take while waiting for the bus, says Mr Chan.

REACHING WORKERS

But the many programmes available will count for nothing if workers do not come on board.

For those in employment, preparing for a job loss may not be foremost on the agenda.

Mr Chan says the challenge is to convince someone that his job is going to be threatened and his skill sets need to change.

"If you are out of work and I convince you to go for training, it's one order of difficulty. If you're employed and I tell you, 'Tomorrow your job is being threatened, you need the following skills', there's always inertia," he says.

Even for those who worry about their jobs disappearing, it may not be obvious what skills they should gain to remain relevant. A bus driver may know his job could be made redundant by driverless buses, but what skills should he pick up next?

This is what the career coaches at WSG's Careers Connect help people figure out.

The situation looks promising, says WSG's Mr Tan. There appears to be less stigma now about approaching career centres, whatever the stage of one's career.

When he took on the job, he was actually nervous that people would shy away from him when introduced, or tell him they hoped they would never need his services.

"In fact, most people say, 'Oh, you're a good person to know. When I need your services, I know whom to call'," he says with a laugh.

To refresh its image, WSG revamped its three Careers Connect centres in Paya Lebar, Woodlands and Tampines last year to be more cheery and make resources more accessible to walk-in visitors.

"We do not want to be perceived as a place you come to only when you're in trouble," says Mr Tan.

These days, about a quarter of the job seekers who register with WSG's Careers Connect and the National Trades Union Congress' Employment and Employability Institute centres are not unemployed.

WSG career coach Andrew Er says his role has changed from focusing just on helping people with their job search, to a more collaborative relationship in helping them achieve career goals.

"I'm very heartened to see more people taking ownership of their careers," he adds.

Going forward, Mr Tan wants to focus on growing WSG's online presence to reach a larger pool of working adults, beyond those who participate in its programmes.

"(We want) people to feel comfortable to come whenever they want to tap our resources, have a feel where the labour market is going, where the future industries are going," he says.

Although the hope is that more people will become aware of the need to prepare for disruption and get trained, Mr Tan does not expect his job to get easier.

He says: "If everyone becomes very fit for the job, the person least fit for the job would have a struggle getting a job, then I would help that person. So that bar goes up."


Correction note: This article has been updated for accuracy. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 11, 2018, with the headline 'Redesigning jobs, retooling mindsets'. Print Edition | Subscribe