April 28, 2017

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by Ong Lip Hua
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THE trends are clear: We’re headed for a future where full-time employment is going to be a smaller slice of the pie, and where skills, both hard and soft, will bear more fruit over a career than the qualification you graduate with.
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A recent JobsDB report on how more than 10,000 respondents from seven Asian countries think that promotions are based mostly on your “supervisor liking you” and “leadership ability” tells of the need for soft skills in all types of employment. Job performance was also high up on the list from both employee and employer perspectives, especially in Singapore.
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Most Singaporean parents see studying and academics as their children’s job specialisation and invest heavily to this end. In some families, other childhood experiences, even basic life-skills like housekeeping, cooking and carrying your own bag, are subcontracted to a maid, grandparent or parent, who picks up after the kids. In exchange, the children are expected to deliver stellar academic results in school.
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And while good grades might set you up for a good start in a career, at what point does sacrificing other areas of development in favour of better grades begin to hurt a person? Would it make sense then to gear our children’s education so specifically towards grades?
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This approach has been hotly debated for the last few years, even as the G has begun to call for change through initiatives like Skillsfuture.
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It reminds me of how Major Motoko Kusanagi, in the 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie, described the diversity of her team in a high-tech future: “If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable, and there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple: Over-specialise, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.”
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But what future are we preparing our children for? Would stellar but narrow academic performances be sufficient, or even give a competitive edge as we think it would? Would it be good for the individual and for society, or do we court Kusanagi’s “slow death”?
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HRinasia cited a February 2016 Willis Towers Watson 2016 Global Talent Management and Rewards Study that measured employers in Singapore expecting a three per cent drop in full time employment over the next three years, and a 59 per cent increase in contingent workers in Singapore, compared to 25 per cent globally, over the same three year period. NTUC expects the 200,000-strong freelancer pool to grow in the years to come. These reports seem to say that our children have to be prepared for periods of non-full time employment.
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This points to the need to have a trade skill to participate in the contingent economy. The need to “bid” and “win” contracts would also require large doses of communication and inter-personal skills for effective networking. Yet these skills are not properly taught in the classroom, and perhaps they can never be.
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When Australia, one of the world’s education powerhouses, finds that skills are insufficient in its education system and that collaboration is increasingly more important than competition, we need to take heed.
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While tuition centres are abundant in Singapore, information on non-academic training, both in schools and by private trainers, is scarce. It is perhaps due to the lack of awareness and hence demand (and budget) that such services remain either a peripheral or the domain of the more well-off.
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But the real solution is simpler – help our kids balance their in-school learning with real-life application: temporary and part-time jobs, apprenticeships and internships, non-curricular activities and engagements and hands-on work at home. Make more holistic university choices and take in basic lessons from the army like making your bed in the morning.
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Ong Lip Hua was in University Admissions for a decade and being passionate about the career of students he admits, decided to pursue a career in HR Recruitment. He was a minor partner in a recruitment firm before going in-house. He is still crazy about providing education and career advice.
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GOVERNMENT officers will not be grouped merely by their educational qualifications from now on. This means that so long as poly diploma holders are competent and well-fit with relevant skills and work experience, they can compete fairly with degree graduates in job applications or career advancement.

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by Natassya Siregar

THE journey towards success is as vast as the sky. There is no telling what you will face on the journey. Being equipped with more skills helps you overcome and weather obstacles, and will allow you to soar high.

 

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

  1. Poly vs Private degrees: It’s not the money that matters
  2. Private degrees: data needs to tell a fuller skills story 
  3. 5 new jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago
  4. SMACK IN THE MIDDLE: Keys to success
  5. 5 skills employers want you to have in tomorrow’s job market
  6. Don’t underestimate ‘soft skills’ in your career
  7. 50 Faces: What is success to you?
  8. Got an F in school? There are still ‘100 ways’ to be successful

 

Featured image by Natassya Siregar.

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by Elvin Ong

SINGAPORE appears to be entering into a prolonged period of economic stagnation with its eyes wide open. As said by Mr Manu Bhaskaran and Mr Donald Low in a recent article, recent domestic and global developments mean that “all the main engines of growth seem to have stalled”.

So what should the G do?

The two esteemed economists argue that the G should provide fiscal counter-cyclical support within the overall context of Singapore’s declining cost competitiveness. They suggest a series of one-off discretionary measures, such as the front-loading of construction contracts, cash transfers to households, and one-off rental and income tax rebates.

They also suggest developing stronger “automatic stabilisers”, such as unemployment insurance, although that point was justified only briefly at the end of the very long article.

Another recent article published by The Middle Ground suggested other forms of short-term counter-cyclical support. The author suggested easing the current restrictions on foreign labour entry, wage freezes, and even cutting the employer’s CPF contribution rates.

Unfortunately, a few key questions regarding these recommendations are left unanswered.

For instance, if a government only has finite resources (monetary, intellectual, and bureaucratic capacity) to expend, which type of counter-cyclical measures should they prioritise?

Moreover, which type of counter-cyclical measure would actually be better for the future economy? The answers to these questions are strongly contingent on one’s view of who the measures actually benefit.

 

Jobs, but at what cost?

Let us first look at what the G did in response to previous economic recessions. In response to the 2008-2009 financial crisis, it introduced a $20.5 billion Resilience Package. The core component was a jobs credit scheme which subsidised the wages of Singaporean workers, thus promoting job retention.

The response to the 1998 Asian financial crisis was similar. Wage cuts, CPF cuts, and tax rebates of all sorts to promote job retention. All short-term one-off discretionary measures for companies.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that these measures benefited companies more than they did for workers.

Ostensibly to promote “job retention”, these subsidies and cost cutting measures provided a safety net for companies to buffer them from the creative-destructive forces of capitalism. Low-productivity and incompetent firms thrived from such subsidies and chugged along, safe from the winds of change with their G-sponsored safety bubbles.

To be sure, Singaporean workers kept their jobs. But they kept their jobs in firms that would not have survived in the absence of G intervention. The present quagmire of Singapore’s productivity stagnation is partly attributable to low-productivity firms that continue to thrive. The easiest place to do business in the world means that low-productivity firms continue to find it easy to do business.

 

People first

Rather than implementing textbook remedies to subsidise businesses in order to “retain jobs”, the G should let failing firms fail, and direct their attention towards helping unemployed workers. There are generally two forms of unemployment measures – passive and active.

Passive unemployment measures include “automatic stabilisers” like unemployment insurance. The argument for unemployment insurance is not just that they are counter-cyclical or immune to political cycles as Mr Bhaskaran and Mr Low rightly pointed out, they are also necessary for allowing workers to buy time to find the right jobs for their skills.

If 20-year-olds find it difficult to learn coding, how many 50-year-olds can you convince to do the same?

Contrary to popular belief that “any job is a good job”, and that one should not be too picky about their jobs, persistent underemployment (the phenomena where one is overqualified for a job) fuels an education arm race with little corresponding increase in wages and productivity.

The extra time bought by passive unemployment measures also neatly complement active unemployment measures, such as training programmes to up-skill or re-skill workers.

Unemployed workers need to undergo at least a few months of training to fit their new jobs in higher-productivity firms. The higher the value of the new job, the higher the value of skill needed, the longer and more intensive the training regime required. Moreover, the more different the job, the more time required to get adjusted too.

Arguably, the current puzzle of the mismatch between jobs and skills in the local economy reflects the very long time lag needed to retrain workers for jobs in different industries, or for higher value jobs. If a significant proportion of 20-year-olds find it difficult to learn how to code, how many 50-year-olds can you convince to stay in the course to learn coding?

 

Help needed

To be fair, the G currently has numerous programmes for the training and re-skilling of workers such as Adapt and Grow programme. But the vast range of schemes available makes it very difficult for an ordinary worker to navigate, much like how the “many helping hands” system of social assistance schemes make it difficult for poor Singaporeans to understand.

Just like how we currently have Social Service Offices dotted throughout the country to coordinate assistant schemes to help low-income Singaporeans, perhaps we need more physical e2i offices to coordinate outreach to unemployed workers.

Another dead horse needs further flogging – better coordination between G agencies.

For example, the recently launched 2020 Healthcare Manpower Plan says that we need 30,000 more healthcare workers by 2020. That means about 10,000 more healthcare workers per year. While the fancy press release outlines the various schemes that are available to reach the target, it provides next to no information about how to access such schemes.

The details for mid-career entrants contains one single weblink on Page 36, to the generic website that redirects back to the Workforce Singapore website. No ownership and coordination by MOH.

 

Learning from failure

Upgrading an economy is no easy feat. It requires governments to build institutions to bring together self-interested actors that do not often see eye-to-eye. These governments need to be backed by broad societal consensus that short-term restructuring pains will bring long-term benefits.

That is why Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has taken time to try to explain to both companies and workers why restructuring is a messy and long-term endeavour that cannot be treated with short-term medication.

Taking Strepsils for a sore throat is the wrong treatment for someone whose addiction to cigarettes can cause lung cancer.

Governments committed to upgrading also need to resist the temptation to adopt easy textbook solutions that can be implemented at the stroke of a pen. Taking Strepsils to provide temporary relief to sore throats is the wrong treatment for one’s addiction to cigarettes that causes lung cancer and persistent smoker’s cough.

Likewise, it is time to do away with short-term one-off discretionary counter-cyclical measures that subsidise low productivity companies.

Forget about cutting costs. Let failing firms fail. Let capitalism work. Invest in Singaporean workers for the long-term. Surely the G, with its much lauded longtime horizons, can see the logic of that?

 

Elvin Ong is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Emory University. He can be reached at https://sites.google.com/site/jyelvinong/

 

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by Suhaile Md

BARELY 10 minutes into the 9am class and I was already daunted by the terms: HTML5, CSS and Javascript. To a non-technical person like me, it seemed nothing more than a confused heap of letters, plus that odd number, five. To the others though – from the 24-year-old graphic designer to the 63-year-old retiree – it clearly made sense.

It was a Friday, July 8, and I was at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Trade Union House at Bras Basah to observe what it’s like to be a software developer trainee under the Workforce Development Agency’s (WDA) Professional Conversion Programme (PCP).

The aim of the PCP is simple: Help professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) “switch careers, and take on new job occupations through skills conversion” said a WDA spokesperson.

Conversion programmes have been around since at least 2007, allowing experienced professionals to move from a shrinking industry to another with more job opportunities. Mr Chong Kim Sem, 49, for example, found a job in the biologics industry through the PCP even though his experience was in plastic manufacturing as reported by TODAY two weeks back (July 15). There are PCPs for diverse industries from food services to healthcare to manufacturing and retail. The full list can be found here.

The Software Developer role was one of eight new Infocomm Technology (ICT) PCP roles launched on May 4 this year. This brought the total number of ICT roles to 10.

Successfully enrolling for these PCPs guarantees you a job: You’re hired by a participating company before training starts, and so draw a salary while attending class. Some of the roles however, like PCP for Data Scientists, will only be available in the coming months, said the WDA spokesperson.

You’re hired by a participating company even before training starts.

In the classroom

“Ma’am, any problems? Can see?”, the trainer’s voice boomed across the classroom. Wah jialat, better not doze off, I thought to myself. The trainer was observant. And patient enough to refresh even the basics, guiding us on how to search for a previously saved file and how to open the programme to be used for the lesson. No wonder, the 40-year-old said he had 15 years of experience teaching coding.

The first 40 minutes of class were spent revising the previous day’s work. So latecomers did not miss much, not that there were many. Of the 12 students, nine were on time.

Turns out HTML5, CSS and Javascript are computer coding languages used to make websites. And we would be learning how to make a simple web application, like a personal particulars form. The class was attentive, so much so that by the time tea break arrived at 10.15am, no one interrupted the class.

The trainer stopped 10 minutes later and dismissed everyone for tea. This is a little embarrassing, but I was the first one to rush out. Actually, for a few minutes, I was the only one out of the class. It was a short 15-minute break but most of the students seemed unwilling to leave, piling the trainer with questions. This, in spite of the carrot cake, coffee and tea catered for the trainees!

To be clear, nearly all of my classmates were not PCP trainees. Some, like the 63-year-old retiree took up the HTML5 course to learn something new while others, like an IT sales consultant in his 50s, were there to upgrade themselves. Most of them were only attending the three-day course. They were not there to become software developers, which requires the completion of additional modules. Basically, PCP trainees attend lessons that are being conducted by participating institutions for the public anyway. Trainees join existing classes at the start, said the WDA spokesperson.

Flexbox
Class is in session. Image by Suhaile Md.

Course Details

The PCP for software developers is three months long – classroom training for 19 days and the rest consists of on-the-job training. The three day HTML5 application development fundamentals course is just one of five modules to be cleared. The remaining consists of a course in web development fundamentals, two courses on Java programming and a course in project management. Details can be found on the NTUC LearningHub website.

So how do you become a PCP trainee? WDA appointed some organisations to act as programme managers (PM) to coordinate between the participating companies that offer jobs, training providers and interested applicants. Those interested in becoming a logistician for instance, approach the programme manager Supply Chain and Logistics Academy. As for software developer hopefuls, they can apply anytime to NTUC LearningHub – it’s on a rolling admissions basis said the WDA spokesperson.

Upon application, said the spokesperson, the PM screens candidates and will turn to a pool of companies that are already on board the PCP. The PM then facilitates employer-applicant matching. After which, candidates will be put through the employer’s recruitment process, bearing in mind that their lack of experience in the sector will not count against them – it is a conversion programme after all.

Once selected, training commences with the newly employed candidate drawing a monthly salary. Which means, PCP trainees, who tend to be in the middle of their careers, don’t have to deal with financial stress and can focus on learning.

Speaking of finances, the three-month programme costs about $10,680 excluding GST. However, applicants don’t have to worry about the sum, as it’s covered by the employers.

But employers don’t foot the whole bill: Course fee grants from WDA cover between 70 and 90 per cent of the cost. Employers will also get monthly salary support for the duration of the training, said WDA.

For trainees above 40 and who have been unemployed for six months, WDA supports employers with up to 90 per cent of the trainee’s pay, capped at $4,000 per month. Otherwise, support is limited to 70 per cent, capped at $2,000 per month. So if you were earning more than that, chances are you can expect a pay cut. Unless of course, the company pays beyond the WDA subsidy.

You will draw a monthly salary while attending class so you don’t have to deal with financial stress and can focus on learning.

Certification

Lunch was not provided. The hour-long lunch break ended at 1pm with class resuming on time. I was expecting everyone to be in a post-lunch daze but that was not case. The trainer was no less alert than before and the class was as rapt as ever. And that continued to the end of the class, slightly past 5pm.

Apparently, this is typical for all his classes, said the trainer. He teaches other courses in the software developer suite of modules as well. Most of his students, he added, tend to be from their mid-30s to 60s with a minority of students in their 20s.

PCP software developer trainees will have to pass various assessments throughout the three-month programme. Successful trainees will be “awarded the National Infocomm Competency Framework (NICF) Statement of Attainments (SOAs),” said the WDA spokesperson.

The NICF, developed by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore and WDA in consultation with industry experts, outlines key skills and competencies required of ICT professionals. In short, the SOAs signify that the G considers you qualified to be a software developer. By year end, there will be 250 spots for job-seekers across the 10 ICT PCP roles, WDA said.

Salary? Check. Course fees? Covered. Job? Check. Looks like PCP is a relatively stable way to transition into another industry – if that’s something you’re thinking of doing.

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Satu Langkah Ke Kanan
Illustration By Sean Chong

by Daniel Yap

Labour Chief Chan Chun Sing wants to give the order: satu langkah ke kanan! No, it’s not a military drill, it’s how he hopes to be able to fill gaps in the the job market and move people from shrinking industries to growing ones.

IT’S been a tough period for the economy: slow growth, weak exports, and a rise in redundancies. The nice word for it is “restructuring”, which really means we are going through an economic shakedown.

Weaker companies will shrink and wither, like dead leaves on a tree. New ones sprout. Some jobs will disappear, and others will be created. These shifts create structural unemployment – people unable to find employment in their old jobs even though jobs are available in other sectors or disciplines.

Mr Chan gave the example of how this affects retail. “Maybe the shoe salesman will lose his job as e-commerce grows, but that doesn’t mean there are less jobs… When some jobs are lost, others are created, let’s say for example for e-retail – there may be an opening for a cyber security engineer.”

The question is how we can get the shoe salesperson to fill the cyber security job. The answer? “Some you can; most you can’t.” says Mr Chan, “You can’t throw a shoe salesman into e2i (NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute) and expect a cyber security engineer to come out.”

NTUC Secretary General Chan Chun Sing shares his concept of "satu langkah kekanan"
NTUC Secretary General Chan Chun Sing shares his concept of “satu langkah kekanan”

So how? Mr Chan’s military background showed when he shared about satu langkah ke kanan, a military drill to move everyone one step to the right, at an NTUC townhall event on Wednesday evening. How is this supposed to help? The shoe salesman retrains – not into a cyber security engineer, but into another job related to retail sales, hopefully further up the chain. The person he replaces in his new job also moves on – maybe upwards, but maybe sideways into a related industry. And so on and so forth, with someone else eventually moving into the seat of cyber security engineer.

What it needs, though is a willingness for everyone to move from their current jobs, says Mr Chan. The moves may not be linear, that is to say workers should not only be thinking of getting a ‘promotion’, but career moves can be lateral as well, for example into purchasing, which welcomes people from a variety of work backgrounds. People who get too comfortable or who think that their job will still exist five, 10 or 15 years from now put themselves at risk of becoming redundant as times change. Workers, Mr Chan said, always have to be thinking of what other jobs they can or want to move into and pick up knowledge and skills to prepare themselves for such a possibility.

But the situation is not only going to be remedied at the marketplace. “If e2i is too busy, (it means that) upstream there is a problem,” said the Labour Chief. “We also need to get students into jobs that they like and can do.” This will help ease structural unemployment challenges “not just for today, but for tomorrow”.

One participant at the townhall, Ms Shamantha Yan, 30, agreed. The director of a training and coaching consultancy is working on a project called Growthbeans and part of their objective is to help people just entering the workforce to find a good fit.

Ms Yan sharing about Growthbeans at a booth during the event
Ms Yan sharing about Growthbeans at a booth during the event

“We are seeing that quite a few people are not comfortable in their jobs and after a few years they want to switch careers.” Growthbeans plans to work in collaboration with Young NTUC to provide part-time coaching and mentoring to students and younger workers. Volunteers who are currently working will share their employment experiences with others who are thinking of switching to their industry.

This will complement the current system of career coaches, who may have been working full time in career coaching for several years and, while skilled at their jobs, may not have the most up-to-date knowledge of what workers are facing.

Mr Chan also advocates for workers to consider how they can apply their skills sets in addition to their knowledge and work experience. He related an example of one company which found a pool of talent for quant trading from an unusual source – it seems that highly-skilled cyber gamers have the potential to become good quant traders because of their speed on the computer, ability to focus intensely for extended sessions and analyse movements in data intuitively.

Who says learning new skills can’t be fun?

 

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Mr Henry Leee

by Clare Thng

ASK Mr Henry Lee how he wants to spend his SkillsFuture credits and he paints a fantastical picture. He is a photojournalist snapping covert portraits of couples at weddings; he is a traveller armed with his Lonely Planet guidebook, bargaining in a Gyeongju market in fluent Korean; a skilled technician steadily rising up the corporate ladder. 

It is fantastical because it is not happening.

Not for now, anyway. These are some of the passions that the 60-year-old hopes to pursue by taking classes using the new SkillsFuture credits, but he won’t be using the credits until he finds his way out of his personal struggles over the past five years.

The 60-year-old has suffered from a stroke twice. The first one rendered the left side of his body severely impaired. Shortly after, he was retrenched by the biomedical company he had served for a decade. Another few years down the road, his wife decided to file for a divorce.

The ex-technician is among 2.5 million Singaporeans who have just received their $500 worth of SkillsFuture credits this year. With the credits, workers aged 25 and above can take Workforce Development Authority (WDA)-approved courses ranging from dim sum-making to financial accounting. The scheme projects the idea of “adding value to what you already know” to foster a culture of lifelong learning. 

While they can be used to spur the development of professional skills, Mr Lee said he would use the credits to explore his interests instead. Interests which he previously had little time or motivation to see to. With over 10,000 courses to choose from, the possibilities are endless for the self-described outdoor enthusiast. “I’d pick up photography,” he said, touching on how he might even fashion the hobby into a second career as a photojournalist. “Or maybe a new language, like Korean? I love to travel.”

“SkillsFuture credits gives everyone opportunities. If you don’t want to take them, so be it. It’s not the Government’s loss, it’s your own loss.”

The elderly man is of the view that the older generation may favour recreational over educational courses. “You can study so much… but once people look at your age, they never get back to you again” he said, referring to how companies were reluctant to hire older employees.

And having worked in four companies since 1976, he also noted how fresh graduates were more employable than those reaching the end of their career or retirees like himself. “So we might as well use the credits for a new hobby” he paused, laughing. “Plus it’s more ‘fun under the sun’!”

When asked how he would have spent the credits if he were still employed, Mr Lee cited courses that would have been relevant towards his job as a technician.

Having said that, however, he said that one possible drawback was that employees might risk taking courses that were of no relevance to their careers. He recalled how, at the age of 20 and equipped with an O level certificate, he had actively participated in a variety of IT courses before entering the work field: “I learnt all these software courses. Microsoft Office, computing skills. Elementary to intermediate, I learnt them all.”

However, during his early years as a technician, Mr Lee faced a daunting new arsenal of job demands that required hardware skills instead of the software ones he had honed, much to his dismay. He said: “I learnt all this new stuff but… in the end, I never use,” said Mr Lee. “It’s just-” he paused for a moment, “It could be a waste of time.”

Mr Lee, however continues to extol the virtue of lifelong learning. He remains optimistic about the scheme, wishing his younger self had such a privilege. The father of one even suggested that students participate in the scheme as well. “The earlier the better! It’s good for the economy in the long run,” he added. “Everyone in Singapore progresses together.”

Mr Lee said that he would strongly encourage his 23-year-old son, who is currently doing his National Service, to utilise these credits in the future. In fact, Mr Lee’s encouragement extended to everyone who had access to the lifelong credits. “We are all Singaporeans contributing to taxes. It’s not the Government paying, it’s the taxpayer’s money,” he added.

“SkillsFuture credits gives everyone opportunities. If you don’t want to take them, so be it. It’s not the Government’s loss, it’s your own loss.”

 

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Ong Ye Kung

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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by Suhaile Md

MY INTERNSHIP with TMG has come to an end.

So much has happened in the three months that I’ve been here. The General Election, the City Harvest Church trial and the protracted haze situation just to name a few. This is my first experience as a rookie journalist. I’ve learnt a lot in my short three months at TMG, like research, cold calling, street interviews, critical thinking, events coverage, content presentation and multiple writing styles. Here are 10 of the more important things I’ve learnt.

1. Worship at the altar of accuracy

Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.

I realised that at the end of the day, the work of a journalist is built purely on trust between the reader and the reporter. What use is a scoop or an exclusive if your readers don’t trust you enough to take it seriously? What use is analysis without the facts to back it up? And if the facts are wrong, the analyses will be off!

If I had to condense everything I have learnt at TMG into just one point, it would be this.

2. It’s about your readers, not about you

A reporter’s job is to clarify, not confuse. So I had to ditch – and I am a little embarrassed to say this – my tendency to try and sound smarter than I am. Here’s an example of what I mean:

“Thoughts and ideas are temperamental consorts sought by many but held by none. The only way to securely grip a wispy strand of flighty intangibles is to construct a virtual proxy that links the dimensions of our mortal conscious to the immortal. That construct is what we call language.”

What a load of rubbish! How does this help the reader? Not only does it waste time, the reader is no clearer at the end of the day. It would have been better to write: Language helps us think and communicate clearly.

So yes, I wrote like that once. Thankfully, no more.

3. If it’s too easy, chances are you’re not thinking

At the peak of the haze in October, online grocer Redmart claimed it enabled customers to search for sustainable paper and tissue products on its website. So of course, I had to check it out. Lo and behold, it looked like the function was not ready. I was tempted to write about false advertising but I remembered my editor’s exhortation: Think deeper, always ask why.

It’s almost trite, but no less true. Further thought made me realise that perhaps the grocer did not have a working system because the market, that is Singaporeans, did not demand it. So I ended up writing an article that probed a little deeper, and hence added more value to the reader, instead of being just another person pointing out how the business is not delivering what it promised.

4. Professionalism, always

We have our biases. But as much as humanly possible, it must never get in the way of reporting the facts. We are not here to judge – that’s what the courts are for. The public will decide for themselves based on the facts we provide. And if we allow our bias to skew the facts, we do our readers and the people we report on a disservice, a wrong even.

5. Be deliberate with words

She said, she shared, she pointed out… they may seem synonymous but each has its own shade of meaning. Said is perhaps the most neutral, very factual. Shared is more intimate, personal. Pointed out is well, pointed out.

So even seemingly simple words, I’ve found, are not “just words”. They make a difference. I’ve learnt to be more judicious about their use.

6. Anticipation and preparation

Imagine you come across breaking news but you can’t publicise it because your phone is dead and you have no extra battery. Or you get dehydrated from all the running around and you’re too sick to report as elections results are announced. Or your shoes give you a blister and you lag behind all other reporters.

These are nightmare scenarios for a reporter – and all completely avoidable if you think ahead. While I did not face those situations, I know I would have if my seniors in the newsroom did not give me a heads up.

And that’s just the logistical aspect. Doing background research, looking for a sweet spot to approach an interview subject out in the field, all these are the back-end work that makes a world of difference to the quality of your work.

7. Just ask

Don’t worry, just ask.

The story, 50 faces of Punggol East SMC, was one of my first assignments. My colleagues and I had to ask 50 people about their political views. Now, you know how reticent Singaporeans are about airing their political views publicly. It was a challenge for me because I’ve never really been comfortable asking strangers for anything, not even directions, much less their political views.

But repeatedly approaching others has taught me that not asking gets you no where. And you learn not to take things personally. I came to realise my discomfort had more to do with me feeling stupid than anything else. Which come to think of, is rather silly in and of itself, no? At worst you get a rude no!

8. Numbers are subjective

I used to have this impression that numbers are unbiased. How wrong I was. Do the numbers not have meaning? Do they not represent something? Of course they do. Especially in surveys: Numbers are just opinions quantified.

For instance the global ranking of universities. The same university can be ranked differently according to different benchmarks. Why those benchmarks are set in the first place, is a question that requires probing. Are those benchmarks the ones we should set for ourselves? Notice how deciding the benchmark is itself a subjective exercise?

9. Exposed my stereotypes

One of the great perks of journalism is the sheer diversity of people you meet in the course of your work. You are exposed to the many faces of humanity and in the process shatter your own stereotypes.

One memorable instance was seeing an elderly lady going fan girl crazy upon seeing Dr Ng Eng Hen during election night. She pounced on him with a cry and a huge hug. Which surprised me as I wasn’t expecting fan girl moments from an elderly lady. But my own surprise led to a moment of self-awareness. That was the first time I realised I had stereotypes about the elderly – that they were not comfortable with showing great enthusiasm.

10. We are all human

Yes, that’s a cliche. But it’s one I have learned anew in my few months here.

My work at TMG was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to observe our leaders (I covered the PAP mostly) up close, especially during elections. Seeing PM Lee with a weary smile at the end of elections night, or DPM Tharman giving Dr Yacob Ibrahim a friendly pat on his back are some of the more memorable moments.

These small actions made such huge personalities… more human to me. Of course most of us have an intellectual understanding that we are all the same. But that was the first time I felt it.

 

Featured image diary writing by Flickr user Fredrik RubenssonCC BY-SA 2.0.

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
Some NSmen waiting around the Esplanade while the NDP rehearsals go on.

By Daniel Yap

A system to accredit skills picked up during NS is “in the works“, but how many of us actually become drivers or technicians or storemen or occifers? Yet there is no doubt there are many useful real-world skills we learn during NS. Here’s what else we hope to get accredited for (also to let your future boss know what, erm, proclivities you possess).

Chao keng king

The candidate has developed high-level skills that can fool professional medical practitioners. He is also adept at being at the wrong place at the right time, cutting corners and therefore manpower needs. He can also feign ineptitude, allowing your organisation to get more out of your vendors or clients.

Eye power

The candidate has developed a keen ability to effortlessly get work done via other people. He keeps a keen watch over any work in progress without getting caught up in the minutiae, such as the work. His ability to comment on the situation when things go wrong is only matched by his ability to stare blankly when things are going well.

Outside the box

The candidate has somehow managed to achieve things beyond what is supposed to be physically possible during NS. During the two years living locked up five days a week, the candidate has managed to court a steady girlfriend, start a side business selling black rubber bands, pass his Class 3 and Class 2B licences, and qualify to compete in the regional League of Legends championships.

Mind shield

Using a simple kevlar helmet, the candidate is able to make himself impervious to any sort of mental activity, inbound or outbound. This is especially useful for protecting sensitive company data, preventing poaching by competitors and avoiding “analysis paralysis”.

Sai kang warrior-ism

There’s no job too dirty for the candidate, no task too small. He has marched the mires of multitasking, mechanical, menial and maddening. Consider him a permanent volunteer for any odd job or random task. Job scope at previous workplace? Just write “pao sua pao hai”.

Area cleaning

The candidate has mastered the art of cleaning. He is capable of reaching the highest standards of room and toilet cleanliness using exotic tools such as toothbrushes and scouring pads. He is also capable of changing the colour of your floor using only Jif and a green scrubbing sponge. This is nothing to be sniffed at as this standard is not achieved by auntie cleaners on a regular basis. Sergeant may have to be provided for best results.

Early book out

The candidate is able to rally his peers to snatch a late victory or achievement in the hours before a deadline. His work performance in the last 10 per cent of the time left is more than enough to do the job, as long as the rewards are worthwhile.

Shadow trade

In spite of there being serious punishments for buying and selling guard duties, the candidate has managed to wrest control of the market for duty in his unit and become a broker for forced labour. In the process, the candidate has not stood a single guard duty, is $600 richer, yet is still owed favours by his peers for securing their liberty during critical events such as GF birthday, ZoukOut and the launch of Apple Watch.

 

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