Harnessing skills to spark innovation, boost productivity

Brandon Tan has his hands full juggling a hectic full-time job and raising two young children with his stay-at-home wife, but the marketing manager at an insurance firm is still always thinking of ways to move up the career ladder.

The 38-year-old intends to use the S$500 in his SkillsFuture Credit account to pay for a two-day course on sales and negotiation skills, with a view to joining a financial institution later in the year. That amount will offset just over half of the fees, and he plans to tap other government subsidies to keep his out-of-pocket costs to a minimum.

"I was in two minds about going for the course because I can barely spare the time, but being able to use the SkillsFuture Credit made it much easier for me to decide. It's an opportunity to learn something new and improve myself," he said.

The government hopes that more people like Mr Tan will take greater ownership of their learning journeys and upgrade themselves as well.

Already, more than S$1 billion has been set aside to give some 2.5 million Singaporeans aged 25 and above an initial sum of S$500 worth of credits. These do not expire and top-ups will be made periodically.

More than 10,000 approved courses are already available in areas such as digital animation, healthcare, languages and finance, with more progressively joining the list.

The SkillsFuture Credit, however, is just one of the many planks that make up the SkillsFuture movement. This is a long-term national initiative to help Singaporean workers build deep skills and expertise that are desired by employers. The plan is to give adult citizens the opportunities to develop their fullest potential throughout life, regardless of their starting points.

"It is only with skills mastery that we can spark innovation, and with that, competitiveness and productivity," said a spokesperson from the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA), the statutory board in charge of coordinating the training of working adults.

During his visit to Changi Airport on the first day of Chinese New Year last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the government, businesses and workers need to focus on preparing for the long term, given that the Singapore economy is likely to grow at a slower pace this year.

"In the longer term, the focus has to be on upgrading, on productivity, on training, on SkillsFuture," he said. "These are the skills which we have been doing and, if the economy slows down, it's an opportunity for us to take them even more seriously and to work at them."

Some observers whom The Business Times spoke to agree that it should be the workers, and not employers, who should make that all-important push for a stronger culture of training and upgrading here. 

"Traditionally, skills training has been the job of the employers. But it is the individual who can decide what he or she needs to learn and work towards specialisation and skills mastery," said Karippur Nanda Kumar, an associate professor at the SP Jain School of Global Management.

While Walter Theseira, an economist and senior lecturer at SIM University, praised SkillsFuture for its many novel initiatives, he stressed that there was still too much emphasis on credentials at the workplace and not enough on skills and abilities.

"Of course, you do have to make sure that people really do have the training to do a given job, but, for example, there is a strong belief among many that the solution to a stagnating career is to pursue another degree or get a particular certification," he said.

"While it seems on the surface that this is an example of lifelong learning, it is likely to be a waste of time and effort if the training decision is made poorly and based on the wrong premises," added Prof Theseira.

This was a point echoed by the WDA. It called on companies to refresh their human resource practices to focus on skills and strength of character in their hiring and promotion activities, and not on a person's age or academic paper qualifications.

The agency also suggested that firms set up mentorship systems to help transfer and deepen skills in their employees.

The WDA made the point that the success of SkillsFuture hinges on the commitment and buy-in from all stakeholders - the government, individuals, parents, educators, training providers and employers.

On its part, the government will fund programmes, restructure agencies and expand the offerings at both the tertiary level and in the continuing education and training space.

Workers and students should pursue their passion and cultivate interest in the fields they are in, while employers should support their staff with their training and development needs.

Even though SkillsFuture is still in its infancy, Prof Kumar described it as an "essential" asset which will keep pace with an economy that is being reshaped by technology and globalisation.

The SkillsFuture initiative will move in tandem with the work of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) led by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.

Of the five focus areas that the 30-member committee has deemed crucial to Singapore's future economic development, one is centred on "jobs and skills".

A sub-committee co-chaired by Acting Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung and Singtel CEO (Group Enterprise) Bill Chang is expected to hold its first meeting soon.

Among other things, they will assess the impact of demographics and technology on the labour force, and recommend strategies to create and re-design jobs.

This article was first published on February 15, 2016.
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