Making lifelong learning work for employees

Challenges abound but can be overcome with help from employers and the right mindset

Sociologist Paulin Straughan

There has been a plethora of initiatives and funding schemes to get people to attend courses to learn new skills.

But Singaporeans who spoke to The Straits Times said they are squeezed for time, citing job commitments and family responsibilities that already leave them with little personal time. Those who are self-employed or work part-time may also have to forgo income from work to attend a course.

Ms Tan Suat Peng, director of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's Continuing Education and Training Academy, said: "Also, if the training is not supported by the company, it would mean workers having to apply for leave to attend training."


Those who attended courses despite their busy schedules said it was tough.

Planning manager Ramakrishnan Ravi, who is undergoing a part-time project management course at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said: "I have to fulfil my job (responsibilities) first and then rush for lessons."

The 54-year-old sole breadwinner, who supports his homemaker wife, 47, and two children aged 17 and 20, added: "It is important to plan my weekends carefully, balancing time for family and my studies."

Those in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) also found it difficult.

Hoping to better tackle production-related issues, Mr Justin Li, 32, managing director of family-owned business Hara Hong Kong Tim Sum, recently completed a part- time diploma in applied science (nutrition and food science) at Republic Polytechnic.

Mr Li, who has a master's degree in literary studies, said: "Running a business is a full-time commitment. Sometimes you have to skip classes as there is urgent work which you have to complete."


Despite the challenges, observers said Singaporeans are receptive to the idea of lifelong learning. NUS economics lecturer Kelvin Seah said Singaporeans know lifelong learning is crucial to maintaining their standard of living.

"Singapore's trade openness means that how our economy performs is highly dependent on global events and the policies of our trading partners, which may be beyond our control," he added. "It is important that we keep ourselves relevant by continually acquiring new knowledge and skills to meet the needs of the changing economy."

Changes in technology have also altered, and will continue to alter, the nature of the economy. It will have a profound impact on the types of jobs created. This is where initiatives, such as SkillsFuture, are critical in getting Singaporeans to learn deep skills and embrace new job roles.


For this to happen, experts said companies' buy-in is crucial.

Sociologist Paulin Straughan said: "Employers need to spend more time on projecting trends, and then match their employees' capabilities to projected demands. Where there are gaps, it is prudent to invest in upgrading, and this should be done not at the expense of the employees' private time."

She was echoing what some ministers have said about how companies need to take a long-term view.

Firms can also tweak employment practices, such as setting aside time for staff to study, and provide awards and recognition.

Dr Timothy Chan, director of SIM Global Education's academic division, said there are alternatives. "Some firms may consider mentoring or coaching to be more appropriate. The key is whether training opportunities are sufficient, and what form is effective."

Observers shared that a growing number of firms have been giving their workers time off to pursue new skills.

"But we have to be realistic and also empathetic to companies, especially SMEs where manpower is lean and much is needed in day-to- day operations," said Mr Suresh Punjabi, director of Singapore Polytechnic's Professional and Adult Continuing Education Academy.

Enter bite-size courses, which make it easier for workers to learn at their own pace.

Modular courses, which can be completed in three to six months, are also offered at the polytechnics and universities. Such courses can lead to diplomas and degrees.


Singapore University of Social Sciences president Cheong Hee Kiat said the Government has been proactive with efforts to get people to embrace lifelong learning. But some Singaporeans have been reluctant to relearn because they think their jobs are safe, he added.

Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, said: "Many are used to studying to pass exams, to obtain paper certification or to get a promotion, but not quite to master the skills to stay relevant."

She said learning groups, similar to interest groups, can be made pervasive throughout workplaces. "Anyone who thinks business is as usual will find himself surprised by a negative turn of events."

At the end of the day, Ms Phua said, lifelong learning is a "journey that no one can take for us".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2017, with the headline Making lifelong learning work for employees. Subscribe