Wanted: A mixed bag of talents

Applied Materials regional president (SEA) Russell Tham.
Applied Materials regional president (SEA) Russell Tham. PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Wanted: Employees who can work with experts in different fields. That multidisciplinary approach is what is needed for the manufacturing sector, says Applied Materials regional president (SEA) Russell Tham.

He explains that advanced manufacturing "is a lot more innovative, a lot more multidisciplinary in nature". He says: "The graduates we hire are from every discipline except civil engineering - physics, chemistry, materials science, bioengineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering - these are the types of talent we need."

His company makes the equipment used to manufacture chips that go into smartphones. Chemistry skills, for example, come in handy as the manufacturing process involves gases swirling around a chamber where wafers are made. The wafers are then packaged into chips. Electrical engineering is needed because there are many wire electrical connections for the various electrical processes involved.

Economic Development Board (EDB) assistant managing director Lim Kok Kiang says: "What we need to think about is not just what field of expertise you learn in school, but also how do we continually enable the workforce to upgrade as they start embarking on the journey in their careers?"

He cites a Nanyang Polytechnic course called Digital and Precision Engineering, which covers various areas that an employer might demand. It covers not just the production aspect, but also design and automation. The EDB and enterprise development agency Spring Singapore sponsor a scholarship for it.

Mr Lim also raises the question: How to encourage workers "to continue to upgrade, to upskill themselves so that they can then contribute and feel the excitement of the changes that are taking place?"

The manufacturing sector in Singapore employed 510,000 workers as of the end of December last year. In 2009, it was 520,000. The number has been declining because of sluggish global economic conditions and the tighter supply of foreign workers.

As the Government encourages workers to upgrade themselves, Mr Tham sounds a note of caution: "Despite the best efforts of the Government on SkillsFuture training, there will be some segment of our population who cannot make this transition.

"Not everybody will be re-trainable to a different job in a different industry and we do need to continue to pay attention to that as a nation."

Lee Su Shyan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline 'Wanted: A mixed bag of talents'. Print Edition | Subscribe