The Straits Times-SkillsFuture Singapore Future of Work

SkillsFuture, four years on

Most Singaporeans rely on employers to send them for training, said SkillsFuture Singapore chief executive Ng Cher Pong, and it is a challenge to get people to start taking ownership of their training and development. The SkillsFuture Credit was intr
Most Singaporeans rely on employers to send them for training, said SkillsFuture Singapore chief executive Ng Cher Pong, and it is a challenge to get people to start taking ownership of their training and development. The SkillsFuture Credit was introduced as a kick-starter and complements the course fee subsidies that the Government is providing, he said.ST FILE PHOTO

It is critical to gain momentum and build skills ecosystem over time, says SSG chief

It has been about four years since the term SkillsFuture was introduced to Singaporeans.

Since then, the national movement to change how people view skills, jobs and learning has led to a slew of courses, initiatives and industry roadmaps taking shape.

From work-study programmes and enhanced internships to bite-sized courses and digital skills workshops, staff at SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) - the agency in charge of the movement - have been kept busy over the last two years since it was set up in October 2016.

Its chief executive Ng Cher Pong shares with The Straits Times his thoughts on whether Singaporeans are well-acquainted with SkillsFuture by now.

Q How effective has the SkillsFuture movement been to date?

A Building a skills ecosystem is a multi-year effort and for us what is critical is that we gain enough momentum and build on it over time.

First, we do need to make sure that our companies transform quickly because it's critical and we need to make sure that over the next three to five years they are able to reskill workers.

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  • 160k

    Number of Singaporeans who started using their SkillsFuture Credit for training courses last year, bringing the total number of users to more than 285,000 since the scheme was launched in 2016.

    79

    Number of Earn and Learn programmes so far that allow fresh polytechnic and ITE graduates to work while gaining a qualification, like a specialist diploma, at the same time.

    4.6k

    Number of Singaporeans who have attended SkillsFuture Advice workshops at community clubs and community centres since July last year. The same number of Singaporeans have taken part in courses since October last year, under SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace, which introduce them to the potential of technology in their jobs and personal lives.

    4.9k

    Number of Singaporeans who have taken up SkillsFuture Series courses across eight emerging skills areas such as cyber security, urban solutions and finance, as of February this year.

If you're talking about a culture like the German system where even in a recession companies continue to take on a large number of apprentices, that's something deeper. For that to take root will take a much longer time.

The Government plays a big role in this, but everyone must see that they have a part to play.

The Government's role primarily is to oversee this ecosystem, identify gaps, identify some of the shifts needed, step in and play the role of pooling different stakeholders. We coordinate and provide some funding, resources to get this started.

Q How do employers need to change, too?

A Some employers in the past relied quite heavily on "buy" decisions, so you poach talent from competitors. But I think that's increasingly not very tenable particularly if you're at the cutting edge of industry development, whether you're in businesses like robotics, AI, data analytics, because the reality is that there's a global shortage of talent in these areas.

So even if you're prepared to pay a premium, you can't find the talent.

That shift is not an easy one. It's not just a shift in mindsets. It requires human resource capabilities to be able to map out what skills the company needs, which must be done in tandem with how the company intends to transform.

If you want to do workplace training, you need supervisors to act as workplace mentors, and this will take time to build up.

We want to support this, and the Government has rolled out 23 industry transformation maps. When workplaces change, these maps serve as a template, particularly to help smaller companies, to provide them with some ideas of how to think about change within their enterprises.

Q What are the hurdles in getting employers to invest in skills training?

A Part of the challenge is we have 200,000 companies to engage, and they are at different stages of readiness and development. So the first step for many of them is they must agree they need to transform.

Otherwise, there's not much point for SSG to be engaging them, not much point for us to tell them: "Please send your worker for training."

The next step is how do you transform - do you have in-house capabilities, do you have HR?

For larger companies this step may be easier. For some smaller companies, they may not have strong HR departments that are able to roll out training roadmaps. But that's where we come in and work with them to support this.

Q How do you convince individuals that skills training is important?

A The challenge is that most Singaporeans rely on employers to send them for training. We really need people to start taking ownership of training and development, to think that training doesn't end when you leave the education system.

That's part of the reason the SkillsFuture Credit was introduced, to send a very clear signal to Singaporeans that: "Look, this is an account that the Government has created for every Singaporean aged 25 and above to get you started."

It's a kick-starter and complements the course fee subsidies that we're providing.

Q Some people say there's just too much information on courses to trawl through to figure out which suits them. How is SSG trying to make the process simpler?

A Last year we spent a fair amount of time thinking about how to tier the message.

We have now come up with a tier - for Singaporeans who say SkillsFuture is so complicated, who want to get some help, they can go for SkillsFuture Advice Workshop - 11/2 to two hours at the community level.

For those who say they are quite ready but lack a bit of confidence to navigate this new scary world of work where digital skills are critical, our advice would be go for the SkillsFuture Digital Workplace.

For those who want to learn emerging skills, that's where the SkillsFuture Series comes in, across the eight categories such as data analytics and urban solutions.

It's not just study or work now. There's work-learn (programmes) as well so the lines blur and the pathways are now interconnected.

For individuals, there are a lot more choices. One big area for us to strengthen is education and career guidance.

We are starting early, but it's not to pigeon-hole them, but to give them breadth. It will particularly help kids who come from families who may not have the exposure or networks.

Q Are skills more important than qualifications?

A I always think it's kind of a false dichotomy, because actually it's not one or the other. The qualifications, in a sense, are an indication of the level of skills that you acquire.

But qualifications are quite clearly, as well, not everything. For employers who are transforming or looking for people who are adaptable, a degree won't tell you whether you are adaptable.

Likewise, you are seeing some of these changes percolating through the education system. We're now making changes to the admission processes to say: "Actually, it's not just about your grades, there are other things."

If you're very passionate about that area, we'll be prepared to take that into account in deciding whether to admit you for a particular course because that matters in your performance.

Q What can Singapore learn from other countries which have developed a learning culture?

A We have done a fair number of study visits and there are many facets particularly in the German-Swiss system that have impressed us tremendously. One of it is employers' involvement in workplace training.

Their apprenticeship system is very well-established and because it's driven by employers, it's a very good system because the kids going through apprenticeships are learning skills that are directly applicable.

We've had to decide how to port in some of the best elements from there without necessarily aiming to replicate the system in its entirety. We've started work-learn programmes of different lengths, different structures catering to different needs.

The Scandinavian countries have a very strong lifelong learning culture. One of the things that have impressed me is how customer-centric they are with regard to how they deliver continuing education.

One institute in Denmark interviewed every person who was interested in signing up for a course so they could say, based on your work experience, the skills you are looking for and how you plan to upgrade yourself, these particular modules are relevant for you and they structure something for you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2018, with the headline 'SkillsFuture, four years on'. Print Edition | Subscribe