Budget roundtable

Skills upgrading message must be clear

Workers and industry bodies must be clear on how and why skills upgrading is occurring, or firms could end up in a situation where "the fish is there, nobody goes and fishes it".

The colourful phrase was used by a panellist at The Straits Times-UOB Budget roundtable, which noted that upgrading the workforce could be best achieved by closer collaboration across industry ecosystems.

United Overseas Bank economist Francis Tan said there are "a lot, too many" trade associations and chambers, or TACs, in play.

"The biggest question is how to consolidate and strengthen these organisations," he said. He suggested shoring them up with more clearly defined roles and abilities.

Mr Ernie Koh, an executive director of home-grown furniture company Koda, pointed to Germany's vocational training system, where trade associations and unions share responsibility for worker training.

"With that, you have resources, you have empowerment," he said. "You control the thing, you are able to drive things."

NTUC director Melvin Yong said: "We need to do a lot of things concurrently. You can digitise, but your workforce is not ready to do those jobs - then you have a mismatch of skill sets, and then the machines have problems operating... There must be a new job, a higher-value job, then I can earn better wages."

The Government has committed to ramping up the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs), first announced in 2016. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said in his Budget speech on Monday that these will be developed further through a cross-sector, "cluster-based approach".

Singapore Business Federation (SBF) chairman Teo Siong Seng said that, with this step, "I hope some of the TAC leaders can be more far-sighted" and go in with one another "to really optimise resources".

Mr Yong said the full benefit will not be reaped if only multinational corporations or larger small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) upgrade and "the suppliers and the supply chain do not similarly automate and go digital". "This would be a better approach: to encourage companies to help one another to uplift the entire ecosystem," he said.

But most companies - many of them SMEs - told a recent SBF poll that they still do not know enough about the ITMs.

Mr Teo said: "The bosses understand. But, really, when you go down to the rank and file - how do you give them a real example where they can say, 'This is why we need to transform'?" He suggested that ITMs draw on "really simple language" that labourers can relate to.

Mr Yong said: "The challenge for the labour movement is to reach out to SMEs, the smaller ones... How can we work with you to convince your workers on the need to transform, on the need to transition?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 25, 2018, with the headline 'Skills upgrading message must be clear'. Print Edition | Subscribe