Most jobs will be around but in a refashioned form: Ong Ye Kung

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said workers need to be adaptable and open to the different ways that work is being done.
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said workers need to be adaptable and open to the different ways that work is being done. ST PHOTO: JOLENE ANG

Most occupations and jobs that exist today will still be around in the future, but in a "refashioned" form, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has said.

"You will need to learn new tools, you may need to apply your skills slightly differently. You must be technologically savvy and open-minded. But the fundamental skill stays," he said in an interview on the future of work on Tuesday after the 45th WorldSkills Competition in Kazan, Russia.

For example, the skills needed by a customer chatbot trainer - a relatively new role - are probably similar to those of a customer service officer trainer, he said.

"It is still founded on those (customer service) skills, though you will also need to know how to operate the machine and the software," Mr Ong told The Straits Times.

When a chatbot cannot answer a customer's questions, one still needs to fall back on the human, he noted. "We always talk about the future of jobs, jobs we never think of and things we cannot imagine yet... but sometimes, we are scaring ourselves."

The importance of fundamental skills, even as jobs change, means "many of the things we are doing in the education system and training actually are relevant" in preparing the young and old for the future, Mr Ong said. "But we ourselves now need to be adaptable and open to the different ways that the work is being done."

On how the higher education landscape should evolve to keep pace with the changing job landscape, he highlighted four trends taking place in various universities.

The first, he said, is the blurring of lines between industry training - which is apprenticeship-based - and university training, which involves intellectual inquiry.

Universities will have to work with industries to co-develop curriculum and co-deliver lessons.

The second theme is that education and learning in general, including for graduates, will have to be lifelong. "That means you no longer front-load education so much, and back-load working in the later part of your life... now it is more work and learn interspersing with each other all the way until you retire, and even post-retirement."

And these two themes lead to the third: that regardless of which route one starts out on - vocational or academic - learning will progressively have to be skills-based in nature.

The last theme he highlighted was that education will become more interdisciplinary.

Citing the Singapore University of Technology and Design, which emphasises interdisciplinary learning, he said: "This is itself going to become a deep expertise, to be able to learn a few things, draw connections and synergies, and then produce something."

Asked about best practices that Singapore is drawing from, he said the Government picks features from different countries and develops its own system, instead of learning wholesale from one country.

He listed Denmark, Switzerland and Australia as "systems that influenced us deeply".

Denmark's "flexicurity" model allows employers the flexibility to reconfigure the workforce, while providing a system of income security.

Mr Ong said this model is one where "training is not just for training", but also has to lead to outcomes like job placements.

Meanwhile, the Swiss have the ability to bring "prestige and acceptance and celebration" into vocational training. The SkillsFuture movement draws a lot of inspiration from them, he added.

Singapore developed the Workforce Skills Qualifications, or a common qualifications framework, through learning from Australia.

As for the future of work in Singapore decades down the road, Mr Ong said it would "depend on our economic future".

He noted how Singapore had a strong foreign direct investment (FDI) strategy to "leapfrog the region". Today, Singapore should tap the vibrant opportunities and dynamism of the region, he said.

"It's no longer about attracting FDI - which continues to be very important - but also to be able to position Singapore as a platform to engage the region, which means our people need to get out of Singapore. Be enterprising and venture out... If we succeed, then you will find more jobs that are exciting and different from today."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2019, with the headline Most jobs will be around but in a refashioned form: Ong Ye Kung. Subscribe