The push to shift the workforce into a nimble one is a big challenge.
In 2014, Singapore launched the national SkillsFuture movement to push Singaporeans to continue learning throughout their lives, and encourage them to pick up a deep mastery of skills.
The idea behind SkillsFuture is a simple one: Help Singaporeans continuously develop skills for the future. Business cycles are getting shorter and new industries are replacing older ones, making it essential for workers to keep updating themselves in order to remain relevant.
Or as Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say put it, "Today we have one career with multiple employers. But in the future this lifelong career will give way to what I call lifelong re-employability”.
But achieving the outcome is a lot harder than it looks, said Mr Erman Tan, President of the Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI).
For one thing, humans are resistant to change. Many Singaporeans hold on to the idea that a university degree will guarantee them lifelong employment. Changing this will also require an adjustment on the part of employers, he added.
“Companies need to change the way they compensate workers and reward people with skills. This will give incentives for workers to adapt to a skills-focused career. But workers will also need to shift mindsets. This is more challenging and change will take place over the long-term,” he said.
There is progress on this front, with workers game to try new things.
According to SkillsFuture Singapore, about 69,000 Singaporeans benefitted last year from a subsidy that defrayed up to 90 per cent of courses conducted by academic institutions such as universities, polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education.
Other individuals, such as Mr Pong Yew Kong, are open to learning new skills and working in a completely different industry.
He was 52 when he received his termination letter in late 2015. After 29 years in the electronics industry, he had accumulated significant experience as an engineer but was not surprised when he was laid off. The industry was facing strong headwinds and he knew the day would come when he would no longer be needed.
“I saw the retrenchment coming. Electronic manufacturing companies were not hiring, and there used to be more of such companies in the past too but many are gone now,” said Mr Pong, 54.
But instead of sinking into despair, Mr Pong started his hunt for a new career. After visiting job fairs, sending out multiple resumes and even taking a temporary job as a chauffeur, he finally got a call back. Software company EP-Tec Solutions, which conducts coding programmes in schools here, wanted him to teach coding to students under the Ministry of Education’s Code for Fun enrichment programme.
When Mr Pong Yew Kong, 54, was retrenched from his engineering job, he did decided to pick up a new skill altogether: Coding.
Mr Pong had no experience in coding but EP-Tec Solutions was willing to teach him, if he was open to learning. He quickly accepted the deal.
The company gave him the necessary training and, as a start, got him to assist a more experienced trainer to learn. In March last year, Mr Pong was leading classes of his own.
“This is completely unrelated to my previous field of work,” he said. “But I look forward to teaching now and it has become a hobby. It’s something new for me as well.”
In fact, matching people like Mr Pong to the right jobs is one of the biggest challenges the Government faces today, especially in a weaker job market. And it is rolling out all the stops to ensure that long-term unemployment does not become a problem for the economy.
In this year’s Budget, the Manpower Ministry enhanced the Adapt and Grow package, a series of measures aimed at helping workers displaced by economic restructuring to move into new jobs in growth sectors.
For instance, the Government boosted the Professional Conversion Programme (PCP), which helps workers get employed jobs in different industries. Under the PCP, the Government pays part of the worker’s salary for six months. This salary support cap was doubled from $2,000 to $4,000 in the recent Budget.
“We must help our people to adapt to change, take on better jobs - both new and existing jobs - and build new careers that we are creating for them in the future economy,” said Minister Lim.
The labour unions are also getting involved, providing funding to workers keen to pick up new skills and join new industries.
The Employment and Employability Institute administers a programme called the Union Training Assistance Programme (UTAP), which helps union members to attend skills upgrading courses by defraying the cost of the programme by up to $250 a year. It helped 18,960 people undergo training last year.
One of the UTAP beneficiaries was Madam Suraiya Begam, 42.
Madam Suraiya Begam, 42, went back to school after 20 years to get a diploma. Now she’s in a job with better pay and benefits.
For over 20 years, Madam Suraiya focused on raising her family and her job as a finance executive, picking up textbooks only to help her children with their homework.
“But in 2012, when three of our kids were already quite independent with their school work, my husband suggested that we do something together. He said he would do his degree while I could get my diploma,” she said.
Going back to school was not easy. For three years, Madam Suraiya attended night classes from 7pm to 10pm thrice a week. Her husband helped out by taking care of the household when she was in school.
But the sacrifice paid off. After she graduated, she managed to find a job at the Health Promotion Board’s (HPB) quality service department. She was promoted to a senior executive, given a raise in salary, and received more employee benefits.
SHRI’s Mr Tan believes that for SkillsFuture to succeed, it is the people themselves who must change their mindsets and be open to new possibilities.
“People must be motivated to make that leap themselves,” he said. Like Mr Pong.
He had to take a big pay cut with the new job but it got him interested in programming languages. Now, Mr Pong is learning to code in the C and Python languages on his own by watching YouTube video tutorials, and remains upbeat about his second career.
“I have an open attitude to learning and I think I'm quite flexible as well. Perhaps I can one day freelance in other areas such as robotics,” he said.