Big difference between textbook learning and the real world, says Education Minister Lawrence Wong

Minister for Education and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong speaks at SkillsFuture@NTU on July 29, 2020. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - In 1997, Mr Lawrence Wong stepped into the working world, fresh out of college as an economics graduate.

"As most fresh graduates are, I was brimming with confidence. I thought I knew everything there was to know about economics," said Mr Wong, who began his career as a civil servant at the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Then the Asian financial crisis struck.

Said Mr Wong: "One of my first assignments was to put up a paper to my bosses to assess the impact on the regional economies and the implications for Singapore.

"Nothing that I learned in school prepared me for such an assignment."

Mr Wong shared this experience, of having to "scramble" and plug knowledge gaps in his own career, on Wednesday (July 29), the second day of work in his new role as Education Minister. It was also his first official event in his new appointment.

He was speaking at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), where he launched SkillsFuture @ NTU, a series of virtual workshops held on Wednesday to help Singaporeans keep up with the new demands of the workplace.

Drawing on his own life experiences, Mr Wong reiterated the need for relearning.

"I realised how big a gap there was from my textbook understanding of economics, and the way things work in the real world," he said.

He added: "Since that experience, it has been a journey of continuous learning because there are many, many gaps in my knowledge that I still continue to plug to this very day."

These include keeping up to date on developments in his areas of work and picking up soft skills like learning how to write policy papers and how to present technical information to a non-technical audience.

"As a young economist, I learned very quickly that how you present data and charts is quite important. And I took a lot of time and efforts to improve my skills in doing these things; it's not just about using Excel and PowerPoint," said Mr Wong.

With the Covid-19 outbreak, the pace of change has accelerated, and so has the impetus for continuous learning, he added.

"Existing jobs may change, and new jobs will emerge, while some industries will undergo painful adjustments," he added.

Learning does not stop at graduation, and getting a paper qualification is not the end-point, said Mr Wong.

"I know this is a tough period for job-seekers, especially for our fresh graduates who are now looking to enter the workforce," he said. "We understand your concerns, I want to assure all of you that we are here to help."

Career centres in the institutes of higher learning have stepped up efforts in career help for fresh graduates this year, he added. The support includes sourcing for job openings from industry partners, organising career fairs and using online outreach and counselling tools.

Institutes of higher learning (IHLs) have a heavy responsibility in continuing education and training, said Mr Wong, who served in the Education Ministry (MOE) for 18 months, from May 2011 until November 2012.

During that period he was first Minister of State for Education, then Senior Minister of State.

"For a long time, we have been trying to bring IHLs and industry closer together," said Mr Wong.

"In the past, certainly in my first stint at MOE, when I asked IHLs, do you have any industry links, all of them would say yes, immediately, we do," he said. "Then you ask industry, do you think of your links with the IHLs, and they will tell you that the IHLs tend to be a bit too academic and too far removed from real-world practicalities."

He added that the situation has changed over the years, as higher learning institutions have expanded their networks of industry partners and employers.

"And we see the importance of SkillsFuture, even in our fight against Covid-19," said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force handling Singapore's response to the pandemic.

He said doctors at community care facilities, one of which is at the Singapore Expo, are concerned about the possible spread of communicable diseases like measles or an acute diarrhoea outbreak, given that so many people are being housed together under one roof.

So to pick up any early signs of such outbreaks, a group of young doctors decided to develop their own mobile application to monitor patients' conditions and symptoms, said Mr Wong.

"The typical way of doing this of course is to outsource, call a tender and get an IT company to develop an app, and then put it in place," he said.

But these doctors also knew how to code, and were able to develop an app and roll it out within a few days, he added. "That's the kind of spirit that we need every Singaporean to have."

About 8,750 participants, including fresh graduates and mid-career job-seekers, are taking part in SkillsFuture@NTU, which features a series of 38 online workshops in areas such as healthcare, cybersecurity and aquaculture.

The event is organised together with SkillsFuture Singapore and supported by all the local universities, polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education.

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