[TMG Exclusive] Ong Ye Kung on SkillsFuture: Value what you know – and add

Dec 14, 2015 11.45AM |

by Bertha Henson and Kwan Jin Yao

LIFE-LONG learning is a phrase that will make your eyes glaze over, admit it. So does continuing education and skills training. You go through the school system and maybe through university, then you move on to the working world, thinking that the learning part is done. But now, you have to get used to hearing this one: SkillsFuture.

Maybe you perk up at the $500 SkillsFuture credit that starts next year, and want to look at the 10,000 courses on offer. After all, it’s you – not your employer – who can decide what you need to learn. But you, the technician, really want to learn baking. And he, the lawyer, wants to play the guitar. That’s about SkillsFuture too? That’s the poser for Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Education Minister for Higher Education, who is overseeing SkillsFuture.

Perhaps, the choice of the man for the portfolio should have been a signal. Here is an Education Minister taking on a job that would normally have come under the manpower or the trade and industry ministries or even the Economic Development Board or Spring Singapore. A sea change has come over the official view of learning: education and career planning start right from the beginning, and the oversight of these life-long efforts shouldn’t be passed around different agencies. It is as Mr Ong said in a previous speech, about accumulating a “stock” of knowledge, not about ending at a point.

“We’re blurring the distinction between PET and CET,” he said using the acronyms for Pre-Employment Training (PET), usually supervised by the Ministry of Education (MOE) and education institutions, and Continuing Education and Training (CET), which is seen as the responsibility of people in business and industry. “These abbreviations are becoming obsolete. We should make it seamless.”

“Some people have the perception that CET is about re-skilling to change jobs – like lawyers and bankers learning culinary. It’s a laudable and brave step to take in life and some of this must take place. But we also need to recognise it represents a discontinuity in learning for most people. We should ask why is the lawyer or banker not able to deepen his expertise and find fulfilment in what he or she is doing?”

He was sitting with TMG at a cafe near the Education Ministry. We wanted to know how different the SkillsFuture initiative is from other efforts to get Singaporeans on the training bandwagon.

He himself is hard put to describe the SkillsFuture initiative. “Is it the 10,000 courses? Yes, but beyond it as well. Is it about getting higher qualification, like a masters or PhD? Also yes, but there’s just a sliver too. It’s about choosing an area you are prepared to be committed in, in formal education, and then you do it at your work and you drill deeper and deeper. It’s about specialisation, depth and mastery. It goes beyond learning in schools, beyond paper qualifications, and celebrates a broader range of success.”

So it’s about seeing work, even professional work like accounting, as a craft that has to be honed so the craftsman can stay on top of the game – or if need be, switch to another game. It’s about valuing what you already know, and adding more value to it.

Selling the vision

Traditionally, skills training has been the job of employers, with the G having little input. When people think about workers’ training in the old days, BEST and WISE courses come to mind and maybe some WITS. The BEST and WISE programmes – to equip adult workers with literacy and numeracy skills as well as to help workers further their training at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) respectively – were launched in 1983 and 1987, and were phased out and replaced by new programmes in 2009. Programmes then were self-funded or employers trained workers, and “there was no government money” involved.

The breakthrough, according to Mr Ong, came after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis in the form of the Skills Redevelopment Programme. It was the first time the government was putting in substantial amounts of money to retrain displaced workers. The formation of the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) in September 2003 signalled more active steps taken, as well as the crafting of strategies to make workers more competitive. Mr Ong, by the way, was its CEO from 2005 to 2008.

What is the link between SkillsFuture and re-training workers who are in danger of losing their jobs or in jobs that will soon be obsolete? He used football terminology. Mr Ong called re-skilling a defensive tactic. Singapore should go on the attack as well. Rather than tell workers that their skills are no longer valid, they should know that their skills can be added – and they can be re-employed. Just like how a print journalist can be trained to work online, he quipped. “So you don’t wipe out everything you’ve learnt. You will be surprised how much is applicable in another industry.”

But SkillsFuture isn’t about something that should happen after schooldays are over. In fact, some programmes such as the Earn and Learn programme are already in place, for polytechnic and ITE graduates who undergo on-the-job training and mentorship. Mr Ong says the start should be even earlier, with children taking greater ownership of their learning as Israeli professor Ada Yonath, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009, suggested when she spoke about how life-long learning can be instilled. Other Nobel laureates who were in town last month also emphasised the preservation of “wide-eyed curiosity” to steer future pedagogies in the classroom.

Students should be adding continually to what they learn in school, to internalise “the first layer of foundational skills” before “going deep into specialisations”. They should be helped along the way by career guidance counsellors to explore a wide range of fields or skills, to make more astute choices for the future, in which the university is not necessarily the best pathway.

Yet, it will be problematic if education and career guidance becomes just another subject. “We can increase the availability of these opportunities and encourage more thinking processes,” Mr Ong concluded. “But ultimately we have to tap into the fascination of the students, getting them to think about who their role models are, who they want to be like in the future.”

But what about the fear that specialisation might lead to obsolescence in an ambiguous future? With rapid technological advancement and the frequency of disruptions, will highly-trained specialists be displaced if their industries are no longer profitable, or no longer exist?

Mr Ong insisted otherwise. “Going deeper allows one to become more competitive, and moreover for organisations innovation has to come from depth.” Going “deep” allows people to pull apart their expertise, re-configure, decide which area to top up and change – and apply them to new areas.

He referred to marine and infrastructure company Keppel Corporation, where he was its Director of Group Strategy before GE2015. It went from shipbuilding or ship repair, to lead the world as the largest offshore oil rig builder today. In other words, value your expertise, go “deep” and be flexible enough to use that expertise to find another niche.

And if education is really supposed to be seamless, shouldn’t something be done with the way it is financed, we asked him. At the moment, the Ministry of Social and Family Development administers the Child Development Account, the MOE handles Edusave and the Post Secondary Education Account, and funds in these accounts are eventually transferred into the CPF account. Could these accounts, in addition to the new SkillsFuture Credit, be consolidated?

He was coy about answering, but indicated that a streamlined approach would “make sense”. “There must be diversity in initiatives but there must be one eco-system.”

Several times, we asked him if the SkillsFuture idea will sell. He acknowledged that getting people to think about education and training in a different way will be tough given the entrenched Asian mindset that places academic qualifications as superior and more prestigious than skills mastery. Plus employers must also value skills certification as much as academic degrees.

He thinks that a start has been made because the “concept of craft” has changed with the range of courses at the polytechnic. The traditional idea that craft is about cooking skills is changing. People now see their jobs as a craft, whether it is accountancy, journalism or even politics.

Above all, he adds: “Who is to say that learning a particular skill, including a general manager deciding to learn art and gaining a sense of the aesthetics, is not relevant?” He thinks it should no longer be an issue if students aspire to be lawyers and bankers, or lawyers and bankers who eventually choose to bake or cook for a living. What’s more important is the capacity to never stop learning, and to develop mastery in any field or sector chosen.

Do you agree?


Featured image by Chong Yew

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