As Singapore moves progressively towards an economy driven by innovation, it must equip its people with the skills to work in a technology-enriched world so as to avoid a polarisation of the workforce.
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam illustrated this point at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum yesterday. On a recent visit to a Cold Storage supermarket outlet, he met several workers who had kept their jobs and performed better as the company adapted to new technologies by upgrading their skills.
One of them was Ms Alimah Md Yusof, 45, who is a senior manager of operations audit and has been with the firm for 29 years. She started off doing her cashier job the old-fashioned way, collecting cash from customers from her desk.
But she now handles the outlet's new automated cash management system in a small control room. The new role involves making sure customers have a smooth experience at the self-checkout counters.
Cash from the recently installed self-checkout counters is put into a machine that counts it in less than 30 seconds. Previously, it took the cashiers five hours to count the notes and make sure they added up, Mr Tharman said.
"She handles that process and she spends the rest of her time walking around the store, helping people with self-checkout and helping to advise customers," he added. "She's enjoying her job and she's still employed in the same firm."
Although technology and innovation will play an increasingly important role in Singapore's economy, jobs can be preserved and better jobs can be created, Mr Tharman said. "We've got to avoid a divide in our workforce" within each age cohort and between young and old, "and it can be done", he said.