Investing in myself with $500 'hongbao'

It’s exciting but daunting to choose the right course out of thousands in SkillsFuture scheme

I am usually the one doling out the red packets every year, but this year, I have been a recipient too.

It was not as personal as having my parents or in-laws giving me a hongbao nor was it as straightforward as having crisp banknotes in hand, but it was a generous hongbao nonetheless.

I am referring to the SkillsFuture Credit, a sum of $500 that is already sitting in my account.

All Singaporeans aged 25 and above get this sum, which does not expire and may be topped up by the Government at regular intervals.

It is one of the initiatives of the national SkillsFuture programme, which aims to help Singaporean workers build deep skills and expertise desired by employers.

After receiving a booklet on how to use this sum, I logged on to the website enthusiastically to find a course. There are literally thousands to choose from.

In my current field of “broadcasting, publishing and media”, there are some 240 options, ranging from computer interactive graphics to copywriting essentials to a diploma in media production and design, all relevant options to upgrade my journalistic and reporting skills.

Going through the “accounting, business and finance” category was another must, to see where I could boost my technical expertise.

In this uncertain job environment, however, it may pay dividends to consider some alternatives. I am not sure if I could reinvent myself successfully in the healthcare sector, where demand for skilled workers outstrips supply, but there are a whopping 422 options if I wish to do so.

Furtively, since this surfing was done in the name of research for this column, I clicked on the food and beverage category.

One of the first to pop up was the Certificate in Asian Pastry and Bakery course. The fees were a subsidised $436.03 for Singaporeans, a very attractive option since there would be change to spare from my $500.

But after a week of research, my $500 is still sitting in the account untouched. At the risk of sounding churlish – like the bosses of various small and medium-sized enterprises who complain that schemes to help them are too complicated – what is stopping me is the plethora of choices.

There are 58 categories, including landscape, food and beverage and architecture.

With more than 11,000 courses, the description of each course is necessarily limited.

Only a few details such as the name of the course and a contact person are provided.

To find out more, you have to click on the link to the training provider’s website and navigate it.

For people who may not be computer literate, the research will be extremely time-consuming.

With 20 courses listed on each page, I would scroll down a few courses before one would pique my interest – such as “fell trees and palms not exceeding 15m in height” in the landscape category – and I would then check out that course’s website. As the courses are listed alphabetically, I have not gone far beyond courses beginning with the letter G.

Of course, I should use some of the filters to narrow down the choices, such as whether courses are part-time or full-time, but that still leaves me with many courses to go through.

My initial experience was much like that of a kid in a candy store. Given $10 to spend by his parents, he runs around the gleaming shelves in a dither as he tries to make up his mind.

The issue is that I did not know what I wanted to achieve.

Should I opt for something relevant to my work? Should I indulge in my love of food, or prepare myself for post-retirement with different skills?

Those choices meant that I was also undecided between trying to keep to a $500 budget and forking out extra. In fact, there may be other subsidies available, such as for those over 40, but they require some extra e-mail to be sent or phone calls to be made to ascertain the final fee.

For those without a support network, such as a career counsellor, an employer’s training department or even contacts to advise on a sector, selecting an appropriate course will be tough. The money will languish in the account or be used on a hastily selected course.

But these are quibbles.

Singaporeans can find their way around the system if they wish to.

Mr Richard Levin, the man behind Coursera, the leading player in massive open online courses, revealed in a recent Business Times interview that Singapore has, by far, the highest per capita utilisation of the courses of any country worldwide.

The scary conclusion may be that, like it or not, Singaporeans will have to buckle down to lifelong learning. Just take United States phone giant AT&T, which is seeing the likes of Amazon and Google muscle onto its turf. It launched a programme four years ago called Vision 2020 that combines online and classroom-based coursework in subjects like digital networking and data science.

Employees have to take classes in their own time, and sometimes pay for them with their own money, although they will be reimbursed each year up to the tune of US$8,000 (S$11,300).

Chief executive Randall Stephenson said in no uncertain terms in an interview with The New York Times earlier this month: “There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop.

“People who do not spend five to 10 hours a week in online learning will obsolete themselves...”

Not having had the good fortune of “touching” millions in Friday’s Toto Hongbao Draw, investing in myself with my $500 hongbao may be the next best option.

This article was first published on Feb 21, 2016.
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