'Queen bee' industry leaders to lend expertise to give SMEs a leg up in upskilling workers

Minister of State for Manpower and Education Gan Siow Huang (front row, centre) at the launch of Prudential’s SME skills accelerator programme, in partnership with SSG, on Nov 30, 2020. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - More than 30 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - some facing operational constraints in sending their staff for training - will get more help to equip their workers with the right skills and grow their business.

Over the course of a year, they will work with Prudential to identify skills gaps and get the necessary support under the insurance firm's SME skills accelerator programme. These SMEs come from 23 industries including construction, education, funeral services, information technology, and food and beverage.

Minister of State for Manpower and Education Gan Siow Huang spoke with some SMEs on the programme on Monday (Nov 30) at independent cinema EagleWings Cinematics, whose parent company is among those participating.

This programme is part of larger efforts by SkillsFuture Singapore to get industry leaders, or "queen bees", to help with the training needs of not just their own staff but those from other firms, particularly those in their industries.

Prudential is one the 22 queen bee entities currently on board the SkillsFuture initiative. Among the other firms lending their expertise and leveraging their extensive business networks to support other enterprises are Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital and SMRT.

There are plans to have some 40 queen bee firms on board by 2025.

Under Prudential's programme, SMEs will get support in their skills development plans, which better positions them to respond to a rapidly evolving business environment.

For a start, SMEs will be guided by a dedicated skills manager from Prudential, who will help them identify skills needs and map out learning plans in line with their objectives.

This manager will identify suitable initiatives and available support for the SMEs, including connecting them with the institutions of higher learning for access to interns and research resources.

He will also work with a team of trained skills ambassadors - Prudential's financial consultants - who are familiar with and can recommend various SkillsFuture initiatives to the SMEs.

The SME staff can upgrade their digital competencies and enrol in industry-specific courses to acquire the necessary skills to support their firms' business transformation.

A digital community platform will also allow participating SMEs to share best practices, learn from others in the network and obtain useful information on training programmes.

Prudential chief executive Dennis Tan said it is important for SMEs here to remain competitive and to stay nimble to capture future opportunities.

Mr Goh Thiam Chwee, managing director of Kah Huat Song Kee Fish Agent, one of the SMEs on the programme, said demand for seafood has changed, and fish merchants have to change the way they operate to ensure business sustainability.

The programme has helped his firm to adopt digitalisation as the way forward, he added. "Most importantly, our employees have learnt how to create new ideas and think differently when designing new products and (in terms of) customer service."

Another company on the programme is EagleWings Group, which operates a few businesses, including the 153-seat EagleWings Cinematics.

Eye surgeon Julian Theng, co-founder of the group, said it hopes to attract and retain talent, and equip them with the relevant skills for the new economy.

The group was badly affected during the circuit breaker period earlier this year. Its yacht chartering and cinema businesses were forced to close, and its restaurant was limited to takeaways, resulting in a steep drop in revenue even as overheads such as labour costs remained high.

Its management, however, refrained from layoffs and instead adopted flexible work arrangements, including sending staff for training to pick up new skills.

Dr Theng said: "Improving and upgrading each staff with new skills and knowledge aids career progression and increases the number of areas we can cross-deploy staff to, so they can have more exposure and learn the ropes of our different business areas."

Mr Ong Tze Chin, chief executive of SkillsFuture, said SMEs form the backbone of Singapore's economy. "Through this programme, we aim to help more SMEs identify their skills gaps, and more importantly, put in place the learning action plans to help their workforce bridge these gaps," he added.

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