Let's get our young talent job ready

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 27, 2013

Singapore has gone for soft options in promoting services and turning its back on moving up the skills ladder in manufacturing. The result: "We have acquired gourmet taste but have no clue how to fry an egg." So says former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow in a speech to the EDB Society yesterday.

OF ALL the proposals floated in the recent White Paper on Population, the best idea in my view is the suggestion that we develop a Singaporean core in the workforce.

This would not have been possible in 1960, when many workers barely finished primary school.

Today, 60 per cent of school cohorts go on to tertiary education at universities, polytechnics or Institutes of Technical Education.

Our four universities and six polytechnics confer degrees or diplomas on some 30,000 graduates a year across the knowledge spectrum.

These young minds offer us the perfect platform for building up a Singaporean core. Though they may have outstanding academic achievements, they may not all be job ready. Just as our full-time national servicemen have to complete Basic Military Training to be battle ready, similarly, we need to train and induct trainees before putting them to work.

Much more effort needs to go into giving our well-educated young talent the necessary support to help them build on their core competence, so they can perform at the workplace and truly become part of a sterling Singaporean core. This cannot be left to the whim and fancy of individual companies.

I would therefore suggest that the $3.6 billion set aside by the Ministry of Finance for the Work Credit Scheme (WCS) to support wage increases for those for those earning up to $4,000 a month be used instead to pay the salaries of young cadets for one year. At the end of the year, the employer can decide to offer them jobs or release them back to the market.

The employer will be required to reimburse MOF half the stipend paid to those who are rejected for whatever reason. This clawback is necessary to ensure that HR departments organise training and induction programmes with serious intent to retain suitable cadets.

In my view, only the medical faculties of universities run proper internship programmes. Others do not. It is fine to say that trainees have to learn on the job. Far too often, I have seen young cadets virtually left to their own devices. In time, they become frustrated and even cynical.

The key performance indicators of the CEO, head of human resource and other operating departments should measure how well they train their charges. For example, KPIs should track the number of new cadets they induct successfully into their organisation each year. The Board Member chairing the Nominations or Remuneration Committee should have oversight of the whole process of identifying and developing talent for their organisation.

On the supply side, university dons will have to be proactive in seeking out training positions for their fresh graduands. Their responsibilities as teachers do not end simply with the conferment of degrees. They will have to get in touch with prospective employers, understand their needs, and teach their students to have the skills, knowledge and aptitude to meet the needs of business and industry.

There will be kinks. From time to time, accusations of favouritism and nepotism will be made. I believe that only an open and transparent system funded from the WCS can raise the core competences of the Singaporean workforce.

On a personal note, I would like to say that my civil service career flourished because I was fortunate to have (the late former finance minister) Mr Hon Sui Sen and (the late former deputy prime minister) Dr Goh Keng Swee as mentors in my formative years. They were truly selfless men.

Unless we make an all out effort to raise Singapore's core competences, we will slide back to be a stagnant backwater as we were in danger of becoming in the 1950s.

When we started out in the early 1960s to industrialise our economy, the average educational level of workers was barely that of the Primary School Leaving Examination. So Singaporeans had to be satisfied with low-skilled, low-wage jobs sewing garments, assembling transistor radios and knitting hair wigs.

By concentrating on industrial training, we were able to upgrade to higher skills - precision engineering involving miniature ball bearings, watch movements and constant speed drives.

As we stepped up enrolment in universities and polytechnics, we were able to attract knowledge-based industries such as petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, repair and maintenance and soon, manufacture of Trent aircraft engines.

Our growth trajectory was rising smoothly from labour-intensive to skilled and knowledge-based activities, until the global financial crisis struck.

We got cold feet, backed away from manufacturing and promoted softer options such as regional headquarters, logistics hubs, casino tourism and wealth management.

At this inflection point, we reverted back to labour-intensive activities. A million foreign workers were brought in to man low-skilled and low-wage economic activities, straining our housing and transport infrastructure. Instead of punching above our weight, we performed below our knowledge potential. Today, we have thousands of young graduates becoming property agents or relationship managers selling esoteric products.

Importing cheap labour to man service industries is a dead end for Singapore. With so many hungrier and smarter people out there, our gentry debates work-life balance and outsources whatever chores we find disagreeable to do ourselves. We have acquired gourmet taste but have no clue how to fry an egg.

In recent years, Singaporeans have fallen into the bad habit of kicking the can down the street. If Singapore, once so rich with promise, fails, I would place it squarely at the door of our political, administrative and business elite.

It is a hard judgment. Unfortunately it is true.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 27, 2013

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to