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One surprising skill the future economy needs

After he dropped out from university in the early 1970s, a young Steve Jobs continued to linger around the Reed College campus, crashing classes he thought were interesting.

One of the classes he sat in on was calligraphy, taught by Trappist monk Robert Palladino. And it was then that Jobs discovered the joy of beautiful fonts.

“I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating,” he told the graduating students at Stanford University in 2005.

At first glance, calligraphy may seem a useless skill to learn, especially for a computer engineer. But it ended up being one of Job’s main inspirations for the Mac, the personal computer that took the world by storm.

It was a similar situation for Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say when he was in university. A computing science engineer, he told university students at a dialogue in March that he was appalled he had to take seemingly unrelated subjects like human resource management and economics.

And it was only later in life that he realised that having a broad-based education together with strong technical skills set him up nicely for his career, which spanned roles at the Economic Development Board, labour union and as a Cabinet Minister.

His message for students trying to figure out what skills they need for the future economy:

Be adaptable. Master a skill but also hold on to a broad-based education.

“At the end of the day, you do not know where your life will lead you. By having a foundation, it’ll be very useful.”

Future skills required today

Experts agree that this approach is the right one to take. In particular, broad-based education facilitates the learning of what people know as ‘soft skills.’

The idea that communication, leadership and teamwork is important was once laughed at. Today, many believe that soft skills are going to be as important as strong technical skills, and that soft skills are lacking within the current workforce.

In last year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) Future of Jobs Report, the WEF noted that by 2029, over a third of the desired core skill sets of many occupations will require skills that are not currently considered important to the jobs of today. What will rise in importance are soft skills.

“Overall, social skills — such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others — will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control. In essence, technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills.”

Professor David Deming, Associate Professor of Education and Economics at Harvard University, agrees that skills like negotiation and leadership will be crucial in the new economy.

In a matrix he drew up, based on a study of jobs between 1980 and 2012 of the US labour force, he matched the level of soft skills and technical skills against the types of jobs that thrived. The results were surprising.

The jobs that grew most in demand had a strong combination of soft skills and technical skills, including lawyers, management consultants and physicians.


Wage growth followed the same trajectory, Deming found. Jobs that required high social skills did much better than jobs without. “The growing return to social skills is pervasive and not restricted to management and other top-paying jobs,” he notes.

Source: David Deming

Doing what robots can’t

Another reason to focus on soft skills: These are the skills that robots cannot easily replicate.

This is even more obvious in Singapore. With the country’s ageing population, the country’s workforce size will start to plateau, resulting in greater reliance on automation and robots.

While this will encourage greater productivity in the economy, it also means that workers will quickly need to adapt and move into jobs that robots cannot do, especially those that require many soft skills, said Mr Erman Tan, President of the Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI).

“Humans are creative and imaginative. They can think about linking technologies up; they can put new technologies together. These are skills that can’t be replaced – at least not now,” he says.

At the same time, a big part of becoming ready for the future is remaining adaptable, a key tenet of the SkillsFuture movement, a national push to prepare workers for the new economy.

A worker may find that he needs to retrain and learn new skills to take on new job functions. “If he comes from a broad-based education, he will find it easier to connect the dots,” says SHRI’s Tan.

Singaporean parents have, in recent years, been enrolling their kids in coding classes, in the belief that programming language is critical for work in the future.

But Mr John Tan, who runs coding school Saturday Kids, warns against trying to read the tea leaves. Coding will remain a useful skill but having purely technical skills can only carry one so far.

“The technical skills alone are never sufficient. You could end up with blue-collar programmers who can’t go further than churning out codes,” he says.

Professor Ben Leong, who teaches computer science at the National University of Singapore’s School of Computing, offers a reality check.

“We might not even need blue-collar programmers in future as these are the tasks and functions that could potentially be performed by machines,” he notes. “Even if the machines don’t catch up, there will be people in other countries who can do the same things, but at a cheaper price.”

“The future of computer science is in the creative work - the building of complex systems and the invention of products. It is much harder to outsource such creative work cheaply,” he says.

He adds that his best students often fall into two groups: One group is highly proficient in their technical skills and devote much time and effort to honing it; the other group has focused on developing a good mix of soft skills and are hungry and entrepreneurial.

Students in the first group are mostly software engineers at places like Google, Facebook and Microsoft in the US. Those in the second group include the co-founders of online grocer Honestbee and e-marketplace Carousell.

Referring to the second group of students, Prof Leong adds: “They have the hard skills - but they are also entrepreneurial and have a good understanding of business.”

Learning to dare

The Ministry of Education has, in recent years, moved to reduce the emphasis on high-stakes exams through policy changes such as the grading system for the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE). It is also putting more focus on ways to build skills and attributes that will last a lifetime.

Outdoor education, as Education Minister Ng Chee Meng said in this year’s Budget Debate, will nurture ‘entrepreneurial dare’ in students - someone who can quickly analyse complex issues and problems, develop ideas, seize opportunities and take action.

He added that outdoor adventures help build resilience, tenacity, leadership, grit, teamwork and adaptability - traits increasingly valued by employers.

More parents are also beginning to realise the importance of equipping their kids with both the hard and the softer skills in life.

Fund manager Bobby Jayaraman believes that play for his nine-year- old son, both outdoors and indoors, is more important than cramming assessment books and doing past year exam papers. He also refuses to send his son for tuition.

His son’s after school hours includes mostly unstructured activities such as spending time with his friends, cycling, playing badminton, reading, and playing games on his iPad. He is encouraged to read widely on geography, history, and science, even if the topics fall outside of the school curriculum. The family also travels together, and Jayaraman sees it as learning opportunities as well.

Content knowledge is still critically important, but that should come naturally with time and passion, when children love and enjoy learning, says Jayaraman.

“If children enjoy learning, they will continue to get knowledge from different sources even in their older years,” he says.

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