by Kwan Jin Yao
ENCOURAGING employees to go for training may boost productivity, but small and medium enterprises (SME) – it would appear – should not be using the SkillsFuture credit for this purpose. Last Saturday assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Cham Hui Fong called on companies to allow their workers to use the credit for courses which may not be directly relevant to their jobs (TODAY, Jan. 23). “We hope to get more like-minded employers to also allow the employees to make full use of their SkillsFuture credit and go for courses,” Ms Cham said. And if employees are to expand skills “then I think we should allow them to pick up new skills.”
Yet, if there is no training culture in these companies, could the SkillsFuture credit first spur individual learning, and subsequently stress the value of training?
The aims of the $500 credit, to strengthen individual ownership of skills development and lifelong learning, have also been emphasised by the Workforce Development Agency (WDA). Deciding how to spend the $500 should be left to the employee. In its list of frequently asked questions, the WDA further notes subsidies of 90 or 95 per cent for training courses under the Enhanced Training Support Scheme for SMEs as well as the Workfare Training Support scheme for companies in Singapore.
“Employees who are sponsored by their employers to go for training should not have to tap on their own SkillsFuture credit to pay for course fees, as their course fees are already paid by their employers,” the WDA added.
But in the first place, how many of the 189,000 SMEs in Singapore have used these subsidy or assistance schemes? Or how many have even made any provisions for the training and development of their workers? A common lament is the lack of manpower and resources for human resource functions – especially for startups just looking to grow or gain traction – and in February last year then-NMP Thomas Chua argued that smaller SMEs such as micro-enterprises do not have adequate human resource capabilities or professional human resource managers. “Many of them are facing tight manpower constraints, so it is not possible to send their staff for training,” he said. Mr Chua is also the president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI).
SMEs are enterprises with operating receipts not more than $100 million or employment not more than 200 workers. And in a survey in September last year, the SCCCI found that there was a 6.8 per cent drop – from 92.1 per cent – in SMEs adopting programmes to improve productivity. Most productivity efforts were focused on IT and automation equipment, so further information on indicators such as the People Development Standard, a mark conferred by SPRING Singapore to recognise organisations which invest and develop its people, could provide more evidence of staff development in Singapore.
In this vein, it may not be a bad idea for SMEs without the capacity to provide or sponsor training to encourage employees to use their SkillsFuture credit, especially if the courses are relevant to work or responsibilities. Unfortunately, present awareness is limited. In the same SCCCI survey, 56 per cent of respondents were unaware of the SkillsFuture movement, and of the others who were aware, 48 per cent said they were only slightly interested or not at all interested in it. In other words, SkillsFuture – including the credit – could resolve manpower challenges, but many employers are not cognisant.
Working through the SMEs in this regard can also be useful to workers, for a few reasons. If encouragement is given by the employer, who explains how training courses may be relevant for the company or sector, completion rates may end up higher. At the moment, for instance, the completion rates for massive open online courses – some of which are listed on the SkillsFuture directory, offered by providers such as Coursera and Udemy – hover around 10 per cent.
Related to completion rates is participation, which could be hard for employees juggling work, family, and other commitments or responsibilities. It is not clear how many SMEs allow employees to take leave for these courses. Figures from NTUC show that of its 900 active collective agreements signed with employers, 320 “stipulate the provision of allowing employees to take five days of leave on average for examination or training for courses relevant to their work and approved by the company.” With the SkillsFuture credit, if employees in other SMEs can prove that – likewise – their courses are relevant to their work or development, should relevant provisions be made?
It also speaks to the flexibility of the SkillsFuture credit, since Singaporeans can pick and mix different courses they may prefer. $500 is not necessarily a small sum, and with top-ups in the horizon, perhaps the ideal would be for Singaporeans to take on courses for both personal and professional development throughout their lives. As such, the concern by MP Chia Shi-Lu – expressed in Parliament last year – over a possible mushrooming of courses of “widely varying merit” may not be as pertinent. Variety of the courses seems to be the intent, for individuals to make informed decisions on their own.
Ultimately the SkillsFuture credit could spur individual endeavour, and in turn galvanise SMEs to invest more in their employees. In the long run it should, therefore, be impressed upon SMEs that training and development is necessary for both productivity and human resource management, and securing their active participation in SkillsFuture and the SkillsFuture credit could be a constructive start for the government.
Featured image by Sean Chong.
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