The Straits Times says

Shrink age gap in key competencies

The findings of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's international assessment of competencies relating to older Singapore workers ought to be viewed with some concern. It is not a case of over-emphasising such standardised testing or of improving rankings for its own sake. Rather, it is about remedying the shortcomings that led Singapore adults aged 45 to 65 to perform below the OECD average. In contrast, younger adults in the 16 to 34 age band scored highly in literacy, numeracy and problem solving. The difference matters from both collective and individual perspectives. A skilled workforce of all ages is critical for the development of the knowledge economy in a competitive world; and higher skills improve the lot of individuals. As affirmed by the global benchmark report, "in Singapore, even more so than in OECD countries and economies, higher proficiency in literacy and numeracy is rewarded with higher wages".

The gap between the young and old here, among the widest when compared with other nations, is partly due to language. The evaluation was done in English but that was not the native tongue (learnt at home in their childhood) of nearly eight in 10 of those aged above 35. Not just for the test but with an eye on the outward thrust of the economy, English proficiency among older workers should be addressed stoutly. This effort would not attenuate the bilingual character of Singapore society, of course, as mother tongue remains a cornerstone of education policy.

As a sidelight, foreign-born adults here (forming a significant 23 per cent of those tested) are more proficient in literacy, with newer immigrants claiming "the second-highest average score in literacy among all countries", as the report noted. Levelling up local-born older Singaporeans is a task that deserves more attention, especially since the nation's educational achievement is held in high esteem internationally. Also at odds with each other is the relatively high usage of information communication technology here and the survey's finding that almost 12 per cent of Singapore adults had no prior experience with computers, compared to the OECD average of 10 per cent.

Singapore is not short of learning pathways for older workers, undergirded by the SkillsFuture movement's thrust to invest in every citizen's education and skills throughout their lives. Quite apart from state-run programmes for adult learners like those offered by the Institute of Technical Education and the polytechnics, NTUC LearningHub, a social enterprise, has a varied menu of continuing education and training courses. However, 68 per cent of employers have reported that older workers need more encouragement to seize these opportunities. Efforts should be doubled to ensure they are not left behind.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'Shrink age gap in key competencies'. Print Edition | Subscribe