Preparing workers for uncertain futures

One of Singapore's finest achievements in education has been an early emphasis on technical training to develop a continually employable workforce. The payback is one of the lowest youth unemployment rates anywhere in the world. The task that planners in vocational learning face now is how to cope with the pace of occupational change, even obsolescence, wrought by technology. Remember the names Remington and Olivetti? These typewriters dominated offices for generations, yet they vanished as soon as clunky desktop computers appeared. Workers in a range of information and word processing functions had to retool, or be laid off. In work as in product cycles, the coping strategy is future-proofing - the ability to anticipate change and to adapt.

The call for longer industrial attachments for polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education students falls in this category. Are employers ready? There could be practical difficulties as taking on long-term apprentices has not been a habit. But the change has to be made for students to derive value from work immersion. The practice of placing them with companies for a few months is not always adequate as the new requirement is for them and their institutes to get a handle on projected skills demand.

Stints lasting for six months to a year are being considered by a technical education review committee. This will be closer to the model in Germany, whose success with workplace apprenticeships is one reason it has been spared the worst of Europe's post-crash problems. Students there spend more time on hands-on application, with their hosts acting as mentors, than in theoretical instruction.

Firms here that will be adopting students must be prepared to play their part in imparting skills and the culture of the workplace. Just being passive recipients of raw labour, as it were, will defeat the purpose of the intended reform.

Shipyards, factories and laboratories, service and hospitality trades like financial institutions and hotel chains, are the domain of corporate entities and government-linked companies. They have a progressive training ethos and would be receptive to hosting interns for long stints. Not so small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) which are expected to form the bulk of sponsoring companies. Many of them lack the organising capacity and cash flow to make the most of work attachments. One way out would be for SMEs to form a consortium to administer the scheme as a group. The intent is to set a template for job matching and joint evaluation with partner institutions. Firms, big and small, will have to accept that they have to help themselves by helping workers to brace themselves for change.