Upskilling: Workers need help to identify skills they lack, but information is scarce, say experts

This is an issue not just in Singapore, but also many other countries, said labour economist Walter Theseira. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Workers need help to identify which skills they lack before seeking better qualifications, but there are few avenues for adult learners to get that information, said experts.

This is an issue not just in Singapore, but also many other countries, said labour economist Walter Theseira. 

Associate Professor Theseira, who lectures at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said while upskilling – or teaching employees additional skills – sounds logical on paper, there is little to no data available on people’s skills and qualifications once they leave formal education. 

This means the actual impact of upskilling or going for additional courses on employment, wages and productivity cannot currently be scientifically evaluated, he told The Straits Times last week.

This makes it difficult to see what skills or capabilities would benefit the workforce and hence deserve funding and support. 

Prof Theseira said: “A commitment to measuring skills and capabilities in the workforce, as well as skills requirements at the job and industry levels, would help us better understand the relationship between skills and job, wage and productivity outcomes.

“This can then be applied to making decisions on what kinds of skills training to fund and support. Unfortunately, the measurement of these parameters at the moment is lacking.”

Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam said last Tuesday that there is a need for a more systemised adult education framework for Singapore. 

He was speaking at the inaugural Global Lifelong Learning Summit held at Pan Pacific Singapore, addressing an international audience of people in the adult learning sector.

Mr Tharman added that such a system should ensure progress for all, but especially for the three groups of people who are at risk of being left behind economically. These are: blue-collar and non-professional white-collar workers, mid-career workers, and those working in small and medium-sized enterprises.

Prof Theseira said the solution is not as simple as providing high-value skills to everybody, as even if high-value training is provided, not everyone will be able to profit from it and perform.

He said: “Most of us will never be competitive footballers even if we got daily one-on-one training from Cristiano Ronaldo.”

Ronaldo is a Portuguese football star, widely regarded as one of the best players in recent times.

Mr Sanjeev Tiwari, who is the general-secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees (AUPE), told ST that there is no lack of training programmes available to workers.

What workers need is analyses of the gaps in their skills or career health checks to give them direction on what programmes to pick to upskill, he said.

AUPE is the largest public sector union in Singapore, representing about 22,000 workers.

Mr Tharman in his speech touched on the need to mark out a new “architecture” for adult learning. He said the system needs to pull together and even anticipate the demand for skills across the whole economy.

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

Mr Sanjeev said: “Training does not necessarily equate to recognition or promotion, hence motivation becomes an issue. We need to bring both the employers’ and employees’ interests together.”

He added that this includes working on giving workers time off for training, as well as bringing down costs of such training. 

SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) chief executive Tan Kok Yam said the agency – tasked with adult education efforts – is working on these problems. 

Mr Tan said SSG will continue to address the affordability and accessibility of training through subsidies for both workers and trainers.

It will also work on empowering individuals to help them find out what skills they need to learn, he added.

He said: “It’s quite easy to repeat our mantra that one should be upskilling, but many are not quite sure what it means to them specifically.”

Mr Tan added that SSG has been working on and will continue to improve its analysis of skills needs, to communicate to the workforce what employers are looking for. SSG is set to publish its second annual report on skills needed in Singapore’s economy later in the year.

He said that the biggest challenge will be to bring together the gamut of employers and translate their business needs into training courses, contributing to the new “architecture” outlined by Mr Tharman.

“It’s not a straightforward process, but we have to try to do that and do it better,” he said.

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