Paul Heng For The Straits Times

Singapore Budget 2015: Fund learning of skills beyond core competency

Singaporeans should not just build deep skills - as a matter of necessity, they should build a portfolio of deep skills and these skills should not be confined to just one's core competency, said the writer. Those who leave the corporate world can ut
Singaporeans should not just build deep skills - as a matter of necessity, they should build a portfolio of deep skills and these skills should not be confined to just one's core competency, said the writer. Those who leave the corporate world can utilise the skills to become small business owners, for instance.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

As a career coach, I welcome the SkillsFuture initiative and find all but one of its elements relevant to the continued building of the workforce. The focus starts from school, right through Singaporeans' career journey.

Two elements stand out for me. The first is the SkillsFuture Credit.

The initial quantum of $500 is a start. The typical career span of an average Singaporean lasts upwards of 35 years. Given that most people need to work to earn a living, this scheme should be kicked off as soon as possible, rather than wait till next year.

Further, it should be a joint account - meaning that both the Government and individuals contribute to it. Singaporeans' share can come from their monthly CPF contributions. Anything that is free can be perceived by some to be of limited value. However, the thrust of deep skills building, just like medical insurance, should be a joint responsibility. In good years, employers can also make voluntary contributions to reward key talent they wish to retain, making it a tripartite responsibility.

In due course, a committee is likely to be established to make recommendations and grant approval of courses to be included. Industry representatives and professional career coaches must be included so as to give representation a wider berth. Here's why.

Singaporeans should not just build deep skills. They should, as a matter of necessity, build a portfolio of deep skills. As an example, if a supply chain professional has an interest in finance, she should be able to use the funds in her SkillsFuture account to build finance-related skills. Skills acquisition and deepening should not be confined to just one's core competency.

Given our ageing population, there will be more Singaporeans who will find it challenging to return to a job they are accustomed to after they retire, are displaced or return from a break. With a longer life span, there is a need to keep our minds active for as long as we live. Many of the people that I coach do not have a plan they can implement when they are not able to continue working in the corporate world. If they cannot find something that they can do to keep their minds and bodies active, they are likely to go down that slippery slope of dementia, and related diseases - a rather frightening thought.

Therefore, Singaporeans must be allowed to use SkillsFuture Credit funds to learn knowledge and skills that are not their core competency. One of my coachees has been in the banking sector for the major part of his life but is passionate about making Chinese New Year goodies. And he does it so well that orders have come fast and furious year after year as word spreads. Someone like him must be able to utilise his SkillsFuture funds to learn how to start and manage a small business, and maybe even to make more varieties of Chinese New Year goodies. When he eventually leaves the corporate world, he can then transition to being a small business owner - giving him the opportunity to continue being active, and to make an income consequently.

There is an increasing number of Singaporeans, especially those from Gen Y, who are venturing into entrepreneurship or self-employment. There are also parents, especially stay-at-home mothers, who are looking to re-integrate into the workforce. We must not overlook these groups when compiling the list of skills enhancement courses that people can tap their SkillsFuture Credit to pay for. There must be almost complete flexibility in utilising the SkillsFuture funds - especially if it is a co-contribution model.

Next, SkillsFuture Mentors. I almost jumped with joy when I saw this as its ramifications are far-reaching. Many experienced older workers have lost their jobs because of business restructuring and have not been able to get back into the corporate world. They can now aspire to being trained as mentors. A new industry can be born. And the vast experience of these seniors can then be shared with the younger set of workers, in particular those who work in small and medium-sized enterprises. Not only can these mentors make a positive contribution to business and the economy, they can - equally important - stay active, which in turn boosts their confidence and self-esteem. We also need trainers to prepare this pool of mentors-to-be, and that will also create more new jobs.

I hasten to add that our efforts to eradicate hiring discrimination must continue unabated. There is no room in meritocracy-driven Singapore for any qualified and deserving worker to be marginalised because of their age.

The one element that requires more thinking and debate is SkillsFuture Leadership. Employers should bear the main responsibility for training leaders to lead the business into the future. Of course, individuals should also play their part in developing their leadership skills to better equip themselves for future roles, and the Government should not be the key enabler via the availability of funding.

The theme for this year's Budget is "Building our Future, Strengthening Social Security". It is an apt theme for SG50. As the Finance Minister put it, the Government can play the role of an active enabler. And Singaporeans, in my view, must take charge of their own careers and future by playing the role of active implementers.

The writer is founder and managing director of NeXT Career Consulting Group, Asia.