New study to help workers stay relevant in the face of disruption: Labour chief Ng Chee Meng

National Trades Union Congress secretary-general Ng Chee Meng said the study to find out how Singapore's workers can be matched to future jobs will be ready in 2019.
National Trades Union Congress secretary-general Ng Chee Meng said the study to find out how Singapore's workers can be matched to future jobs will be ready in 2019.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - A wide-ranging study will be under way in the coming months to find out how Singapore's workers can be matched to future jobs, as digitalisation and disruptive technology have changed the way businesses operate.

This data will help define how workers can be trained even as their workplaces undergo changes. It will pave the way for specific training programmes in various sectors.

The study will collect information from six clusters: manufacturing; built environment; trade and connectivity; essential domestic services; modern services; and lifestyle.

Announcing the initiative, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general Ng Chee Meng said findings are expected to be ready a year from now.

Even as the way businesses operate changes, the profile of the Singaporean worker is also changing, Mr Ng said in an hour-long interview with The Straits Times on Monday (Sept 3) on his first 100 days as labour chief.

Rank-and-file employees used to make up 70 per cent of all workers, with PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) making up the rest. But the ratio is now about 50:50 and still evolving.

Mr Ng said that apart from having unions and associations represent different groups, he hopes to chart a direction on how workers can develop themselves as well.

"How do we actually match the new Singaporean worker to Industry 4.0?" he asked, referring to the trend of automation and how it is changing various sectors.

For a start, one will need to explain to workers the new requirements they face, as technological disruptions come into play. These involve adaptive skills, or the ability to deal with change, technology skills, which refer to the breadth of digital knowledge that workers need to be exposed to, as well as technical skills, meaning job-specific knowledge, said Mr Ng.


"We feel that this is a good start, but we want to drill deeper into what are the archetypes. For example, nurse 4.0, healthcare worker 4.0, technician 4.0," he said.

The next part is implementing these concepts through a training arm set up by NTUC, he added.

A training council that Mr Ng chairs has already been set up, with NTUC's Employment and Employability Institute as secretariat. It will work with a network of partners, including union leaders, institutes of higher learning and government groups such as Workforce Singapore, to develop the training programmes.

NTUC could partner a unionised company that is ahead of the curve in order to come up with details for the courses, said Mr Ng. He cited the Healthcare Academy, recently set up by the NTUC LearningHub and the Healthcare Services Employees' Union, as an example of how workers can be trained for new roles.

Analysts welcome the latest labour movement initiative.

Labour economist Randolph Tan of the Singapore University of Social Sciences said the labour market will benefit from in-depth studies of impending jobs disruption and future skills needs.

A major source of uncertainty, he said, arises from the scarcity of information.

"Some of this boils down to the asymmetry that rank-and-file workers suffer in terms of knowing what skills are going to be in demand," he added. "In that sense, the role of the labour movement is critical in helping plug this gap for workers and ensuring they are prepared ahead of time."

National University of Singapore economics lecturer Kelvin Seah said that NTUC's move could help to reduce workers' risks of unemployment.

"Without this push from NTUC, individual companies may lack the incentive to send their workers for retraining, even though they might already anticipate that certain job functions would be at risk of being displaced by new technologies," he added.

Nanyang Technological University economics professor Chew Soon Beng said: "You have to manage change and expectations. People feel threatened by technology, but you have to give them hope as well... If employees are learning while they are working, that is the best."