Skills contest could be extended beyond polys, ITE

Above: (From left) Mr Ng Cher Pong, chief executive of SkillsFuture Singapore, Mr Ng Jun Xuan, a Nanyang Polytechnic student who won a gold medal at the WorldSkills international competition, and Mr Steven Low, senior manager for student development
(From left) Mr Ng Cher Pong, chief executive of SkillsFuture Singapore, Mr Ng Jun Xuan, an NYP student who won a gold medal at the WorldSkills international competition, and Mr Steven Low, senior manager for student development and recognition at ITE and team leader of the Singapore contingent for WorldSkills 2017.PHOTO: INSTITUTE OF TECHNICAL EDUCATION
Above: (From left) Mr Ng Cher Pong, chief executive of SkillsFuture Singapore, Mr Ng Jun Xuan, a Nanyang Polytechnic student who won a gold medal at the WorldSkills international competition, and Mr Steven Low, senior manager for student development
Temasek Polytechnic graduate Olivia Low delivering a presentation during the WorldSkills competition. She won a gold medal in the new skill area of freight forwarding.PHOTO: INSTITUTE OF TECHNICAL EDUCATION

Proposed move aimed at showing that vocational skills are just as important as paper qualifications

A long-running skills competition for students from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnics could be extended to more people, in a move to stress that skills matter as much as paper qualifications.

For more than two decades, the WorldSkills Singapore competition has been open only to ITE and poly students. But it could be extended to university students or any youth who meets the criteria, said Mr Ng Cher Pong, chief executive of SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG).

Mr Ng, who spoke to reporters at the 44th edition of the WorldSkills international competition in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates last week, said SSG is exploring this move with the universities.

The Singapore edition of the biennial contest drew about 150 participants each in 2013 and 2015. Winners represent Singapore in the global WorldSkills competition.

Mr Ng said getting people to move from a focus on the paper chase to the skills needed for a vocation is difficult, but the WorldSkills competition can be used to "drive that change in mindset".

SSG is also exploring other moves to raise the profile of skills development and vocational training and education, he told reporters.

At this year's WorldSkills competition, Singapore bagged 13 awards, including two golds in new skill areas that are in demand in the future economy - 3D digital game art and freight forwarding.

Mr Ng Cher Pong, chief executive of SkillsFuture Singapore, likened the work of changing mindsets to "turning a big ship". "Time is required, and for it to turn, you need many stakeholders to be turning the steering wheel in one direction," he said. Small things do add up, he said, whether it is using platforms such as WorldSkills to increase awareness of the importance of skills, or benchmarking skill attainment against other countries.

Mr Ng said SSG may also introduce competition categories featuring skills that are in demand here, such as cyber security, and rope in more firms to raise awareness of the importance of these skills.

The competition can offer a platform to provide more broad-based education and career guidance for secondary school students. Students get to see participants demonstrating their skills in areas such as nursing, cooking or Web design in a real-world context and appreciate the importance of skills.

Mr Ng likened the work of changing mindsets to "turning a big ship".

"Time is required, and for it to turn, you need many stakeholders to be turning the steering wheel in one direction," he said.

Small things do add up, he said, whether it is using platforms such as WorldSkills to increase awareness of the importance of skills, or benchmarking skill attainment against other countries.

The challenge of changing perceptions about skills was also discussed at a conference held in conjunction with the contest.

Dr Clement Chen, chairman of Hong Kong's Vocational Training Council, said many parents view technical and vocational education and training as "rather low-end".

But the skills and equipment that competitors are handling at the contest are actually "top-notch", requiring intensive technique, training and knowledge.

Mr Chen believes the pay gap between degree holders and vocational trainees will narrow as employers put more emphasis on skills. In fact, in Hong Kong, those trained in culinary skills and design already earn as much as graduates, he said.

In Switzerland, parents, too, believe that vocational trades are not as prestigious, said Ms Christine Davatz-Hochner, deputy director of the Swiss Federation of Small and Medium Enterprises.

One way to attract students to the apprenticeship route is to remind them that there is a "permeability" between the vocational and academic route, she added.

Temasek Polytechnic graduate Olivia Low, 20, who won a gold award at the global WorldSkills contest for freight forwarding, said taking part has helped her "to see the importance of each skill and appreciate all professions".

Now a business student at Nanyang Technological University, she added: "This experience has exposed me to people from different cultures and helped me gain confidence in building friendships, despite the differences."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Skills contest could be extended beyond polys, ITE'. Print Edition | Subscribe