S’pore needs lifelong learning system that helps all workers: Tharman

The system must recognise and serve the differing motivations of individuals and companies, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Workers can benefit from a new lifelong learning system designed to ensure progress for everyone, including three groups of people who are at risk of being left behind. 

The three groups are blue-collar and non-professional white-collar workers, mid-career workers, and those working in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Mr Tharman, who is also Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, was speaking at the inaugural Global Lifelong Learning Summit held at Pan Pacific Singapore on Tuesday. 

In outlining his vision of the system, Mr Tharman identified three key planks for the framework, and how it should differ from the existing “architecture” of formal education.

First, it needs to pull together and even anticipate the demand for skills across the whole economy, he said. This must then be connected to training content and methods, and people both in the workforce and looking for jobs to help them develop their careers, as well as the companies. 

Singapore has made a reasonable start in this regard, Mr Tharman said, but more must be done to link the demand for skills, individual interests and training institutions. 

The system must also recognise and serve the differing motivations of individuals and companies, he added. Enterprises need people with skills that are useful today and specific to their needs, but individuals want to gain skills that will benefit them across their careers, possibly with new employers in the future, he said.

Mr Tharman said: “You need an architecture that provides enough avenues for individuals to develop their careers… But it should have, broadly speaking, a ‘demand-side’ bias for looking at what skills are needed in the labour market.”

Second, the new system must avoid fragmentation, said Mr Tharman. 

Unlike formal education in schools, an adult learning system may be more dispersed, with many different providers working on different platforms. But the system must find a way to aggregate or bring together these platforms and the information on them, he added.

Mr Tharman said: “Complexity is the enemy of most individuals, an enemy of enabling them to plan their futures. So we need to ensure the system aggregates information and even aggregates different platforms.”

Third, the new system must evolve to embrace a wider view of credentials or qualifications, said Mr Tharman. 

“Credentials are not a bad word; they are a very important motivator… But we have to evolve so that you don’t just have one credential in life.”

Mr Tharman added that people should move towards thinking of a portfolio of credentials, some of which are from formal education and some of which are skills-based. 

To this end, Singapore’s SkillsFuture movement – which began in 2014 – is a good start, but more can be done to address the needs of certain vulnerable groups in society, said Mr Tharman, addressing more than 300 participants in the audience, including those tuning in online. 

Blue-collar and ordinary white-collar workers are more at risk of stagnating in their career than professional workers, he said.

“We’ve got to find ways in which we provide conveniently, and in a relevant way, equal opportunities for quality learning for every segment of the workforce.” 

The second group are mid-career workers, who have been out of school for a long time and do not have much time on their hands due to other obligations. 

“The art and science of training adults are quite different from those involved in school systems and even in regular university systems,” said Mr Tharman. 

Adult learners want to have a role in deciding what and how they should learn, he added. 

Another segment that is lagging is the SME sector, he said. 

“By their nature, SMEs are smaller and don’t have the scale to develop their own training programmes. They don’t very often have a range of job options to allow for career advancement within the firm,” he said. 

Across the world, particularly in advanced societies, there has been a decline in optimism for the future, said Mr Tharman. 

“We must recreate a sense of society that the future will be better than today… We must avoid the stagnation of the middle that is plaguing many societies. 

“And we must ensure that we preserve and rebuild the spirit of solidarity through everyone advancing together.” 

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