March 23, 2017

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
A corridor at the campus of NUS Yale.

by Ong Lip Hua

UNIVERSITY admissions season looms again, and as a university admissions professional with over a decade of work experience (in NUS and SIT), I get plied with questions from would-be students and their parents.

What I’ve come to realise is that the questions that potential students ask are usually off the mark. Perhaps it has to do with the media’s fascination with rankings (which reflect research, not teaching quality), graduate pay, and employment numbers.

While these may form a part of the answer to the question “why should I choose this university”, most of us go to the university to pave the way for a future career and the career prospects of a graduate are not sufficiently represented by these metrics.

A successful career is sustained more through a university’s “after sales” service, which most applicants are not aware of. This “after sales” service is performed by several offices in the university that often go overlooked.

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Here’s what else you might want to ask about at the next admissions talk:

The Placement Office: This is the department that organises career fairs, gives you job advice, and teaches you how to write your resume. They are known by many other names. How strong is the University’s Placement Office? Which sector do they have hiring partners in? What type and amount of assistance does the Placement Office provide?

Internship programmes: The Faculty Office or Placement Office typically handles internship placements. There is only so much you can learn about the working world and an industry from the safe confines of a lecture hall or tutorial room. Before we graduate, we need to be “inserted” into the industry network. An early foray into the environment where you’ll be spending the next 40 years of your life can pay off more than an impressive Grade Point Average.

Internships get you into the network and industry lingo so you can better know what and why is that thing on page 1905 of the reference source number AI76. Great internships put you in the same office as industry leaders and key personalities: distinguish yourself there and you’ll have the makings of a priceless industry network.

The Alumni Office: Getting our first job is only the first step in what we hope will be a long career. Good pay prospects and employment ratios are good to have, but the more important question is: where do I go from there?

Strong Alumni Offices are also good after-sales service centers. They provide you with the network to get into higher level positions, make business connections for you to start or expand your businesses, and can give you access to ideas, funds and links for your project or research break-through.

How active or strong are the university’s Alumni Offices? What events or activities are held? How committed is the alumni community? What are this office’s beliefs and objectives?

One more question: What is your student profile? This is a question especially for universities abroad, or for locally-awarded degrees from overseas institutions. This tells you who you get to network with while you are in school. If you can’t get a straight answer, spend some time roaming the campus talking to, or observing current students.

At some point in life, co-operation becomes much more valuable than competition. The friends and frenemies you have made during your school years can translate into doors that are open or shut to you later in life.

These “after sales” functions of universities will become increasingly important as the world churns out even more graduates, as work/jobs become more transnational, as technology, mergers and acquisitions reduce number of jobs and increase competition.

So at your next university admissions talk or open house, don’t just ask about cut-off points, or why this course is better than another. Ask questions that span 40 years into your future, because that’s probably what you are getting an education for.

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.

 

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

Featured image by Shawn Danker.

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U.S. President elect Donald Trump speaks at election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

by Daniel Yap 

THE race to retrain is playing out in the USA as it is in Singapore. US President Donald Trump was just told last week (Feb 24) that even if he brings the jobs back to “make America great again”, there aren’t enough qualified American workers to fill them.

Currently, some 324,000 factory vacancies are available in the USA and the two dozen business leaders, including Jeff Immelt of General Electric, Doug Oberhelman of Caterpillar, and Inge Thulin of 3M, warned that a skills mismatch meant that many would remain unfilled.

Jobs have not only left the USA for other markets; it seems that some jobs are simply gone for good. Part of the problem that got Mr Trump elected into office, anger over lost blue-collar jobs, has been one that was left un-addressed by the previous administration, and the issue of the job-skills mismatch seemed to be relatively new to Trump himself.

Simply demanding that companies move production back to the USA will not solve the problem. Times have changed, and the USA needs a new solution.

White House staffers were challenged by the President to come up with a program to make sure the American worker is trained for the manufacturing jobs of tomorrow.

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What sort of program would that be, I wonder? Would it involve subsidised training for workers to study skills more relevant to where job openings are? Would it include a fund to allow Americans to pursue interest areas that may or may not be related to their work? Will it include education reform to prepare tertiary students for work by focusing on the latest and most relevant industry skills, and get workers matched to small businesses looking for people with the right skills?

Oh wait, you mean something like SkillsFuture?

Singapore is a little ahead of the curve on this. Even as Mr Trump, as the Government, is just learning about what businesses need and want, and scrambles to formulate policy that will address the gap.

But both Singapore and America have yet to prove that their workers, especially the oft-ignored rank-and-file workers, are up to the task of reinventing themselves for the jobs of the future, with or without help from the G.

That’s not to say that Singapore’s programme will solve America’s ills. This island nation is still at the start of its struggle to revolutionise its traditional focus on paper qualifications and America is still many steps ahead of Singapore in parts of the SkillsFuture journey. It has always valued skills at the workplace, even though it has not thought to train people for it.

The ability to get the job done and done well has fuelled many a mailroom-to-corner-office story, because employer culture is generally one that values skills and results above educational qualifications. And Americans are entrepreneurial enough to know not to expect handouts in their highly competitive economy.

Both America and Singapore know the score – as disparate as the two nations are, they are fighting for a bigger slice of the global economic pie, and whichever economy doesn’t transform fast enough is going to get left behind.

In the big picture, this is about national prosperity. The country that is able to provide citizens with the best quality of life and hope for the future is the one that can develop the skills of its people most effectively, but that takes buy-in and commitment from all parties – the government, businesses and the workers themselves.

 

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

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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Black strap watch with gold face showing 8.30.

WHENEVER there’s money to be given out, you can bet somebody will find a way to get hold of it via dubious means. Remember how companies took advantage of Productivity and Innovation Credit schemes to get cash? Now, that $500 SkillsFuture credit dangling in front of each adult Singaporeans is too tempting for some.

Some people – about 4,400 people – decided to pluck such tempting fruit by submitting false claims for a SkillsFuture course they didn’t attend. It’s intriguing because they all went to the same course by the same service provider – which remains un-named. MSM reported how the scam was uncovered because of data analytics which flagged a sudden spike in claims. The total amount claimed: $2.2 million.

Now the question is whether the system worked before – or after – the claims have been processed and money given out. Well, some 4,400 people are richer by $500 each, more than a GST voucher for most. The G has sent the people letters to return the money in 30 days, but it didn’t say what will happen to those who don’t.

SkillsFuture Singapore said its course directory and claims process were designed to be simple, inclusive and user-friendly, to encourage usage. “It is regrettable that some individuals have abused the system and submitted false claims,” the agency said.

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Investigations are still going on but it’s a wonder how 4,400 people can somehow be making claims for the same course. Was there a mastermind or did they somehow get wind of money to be made this way? If so, how did they get the supporting documents, like receipts for the course fees, to make the claims?

The other theory of course is that they have been unwitting accomplices who had their names used without their consent. If so, no one came forward to say so. Cash in hand is not to be sniffed at?

According to TODAY, SkillsFuture Singapore was asked if there is a risk of the claims system. Its reply: “The SkillsFuture Credit System has never been compromised … SSG’s enforcement system involves data analytics to detect anomalies, regular audits of training providers, and manual audits of individual claims. These measures have allowed SSG to uncover false SkillsFuture Credit claims. We will continue to strengthen the sensitivity of our data analytics system in flagging out anomalies.”

What a thing to say! If giving out $2.2m is not a compromise of the claims system, then what is it?

Still on training – but something that doesn’t look like it can be abused: two universities here are offering work-study degree programmes for its students. The Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and SIM University have 65 such places which integrate work and training.

Did your eyes glaze over because you’ve heard about such programmes before? The difference is that the students will be spending a lot more time in a hands-on job, like up to four days a week, than in class. Free labour for companies? Nope. They will be contract staff and it will be for employers to decide if they should be given permanent positions after their graduation.

Minister for Higher Education Ong Ye Kung who announced this yesterday noted that with more people getting into universities, “employers need to ensure a good match between talents and skills of the graduates they hire and organisational needs.”

In other words, when the Singapore graduate cohort hits 40 per cent, employers need to be able to tell one grad from another and this scheme will give some students a cutting edge. The universities are beginning to look like polytechnics, aren’t they? It will be more so when the other universities add this scheme to their current internship and exchange programmes.

What sorts of courses are being offered? They include information security, software engineering, hospitality business, electrical power engineering, civil engineering and finance and business analytics.

Now why would anyone want an arts and social science degree?

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Suhaile Md

DIGITAL jobs like software, web, and multimedia developers are the third most in-demand jobs according to a report released by the Manpower Ministry on Tuesday (Feb 7). Clearly, technical skills like coding and data analysis will put candidates in a good position for these jobs.

But it would be a mistake to think coding is all that matters. Soft skills play an integral role in career progression as well.

The idea of the “lone wolf” who does not get along well with others, but writes brilliant code, is a thing of the past, said Mr Sheng Yunzhou, a software engineer.

“Like any other job, domain skills alone are not enough,” he said. Other skills like resilience, ability to learn, teamwork, and communication, are important, added Mr Sheng. The 29-year-old develops apps for private banking clients at a major international bank.

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Teamwork

In the past, coding used to be “product or project centric”. So when a project came along, various people were pulled together to work on it, only to be disbanded once completed. But now, it’s about “nurturing a strong team, keeping them together”, to work on successive projects said Mr Sheng.

A team “has to become an entity itself… so that it can move quickly” to solve problems.

Mr Sheng recalled the time his team had a developer whose coding was good but his inability to work with others created problems. For example, the team would have two weeks of the project planned out but the developer’s tendency to do things his own way would throw the plans off. Time, and hence money, was lost due to a lack of cooperation from the developer.

Learning how to work well with people is a skill that can be picked up.

For example, understanding what motivates others, or why they act a certain way, goes far in making one an effective team player. The Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS) course “Winning with difficult people” is a course you can take. Singaporeans can use their SkillsFuture credit to pay for the course. 

 

Communication

The “biggest problem” with many developers, Mr Sheng found, is their inability to “communicate ideas clearly” even to their fellow coders.

Bad communication can hamper the quality of work. After all, developers basically “teach computers to do things that people can use”. If developers do not learn how to listen, to talk to people to find out what problems users are facing, or to hold a conversation exploring different ideas, how can they create a product that people find useful?

Courses that teach skills like how to structure a conversation such that you draw out the relevant information, understand the various communication styles people have, and craft clear messages, are available. For example, the “interpersonal communication skills” course by the British Council.

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Resilience

Coding is hard, even for developers, said Mr Sheng. The field changes so fast, “it’s a must to keep on learning new things, all the time”. New jargon crop up every time there’s a development.

So anyone who wishes to progress in this field needs to “instil the habit of deliberate practise”.

It’s the “most valuable asset”.

Coders need to practise harder codes and different programming languages in their downtime, over the weekends and so on. Or other developers will take their place.

The challenge of continual learning and deliberate practise is that failing is part of the process, which can be “really daunting,” he added. Without resilience, effective learning in this field is difficult.

It’s a sentiment shared by Mr Tan Choon Ngee, CEO of aZaaS, a Singapore-based Information Technology firm with subsidiaries in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China.

“Positive nature and grit” is what Mr Tan looks out for in his new hires. Otherwise they would not be able to keep up with the industry as it “experiences high rates of change”, said the 42-year-old.

At the end of the day, as Mr Sheng said, while coding is a must-have primary skill in his field, without communication skills, team work, and resilience, your career would be stunted.

His advice, regardless of which industry you’re in: “Keep learning, don’t stop.”

 

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

 

Featured image by Pixabay user Tumisu. (CC0 1.0)

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by Suhaile Md

WHAT’S the secret to career success? That’s a perennial question and these days, skills mastery has come to be accepted as a key component of a successful climb up the career ladder.

But what exactly is “skills mastery”?

To put it simply, it is a mindset – of continually striving towards greater excellence through knowledge, application and experience. Skills mastery is more than having the right paper qualifications and being good at what you do now.

We discuss three important areas of mastery:

 

Mastery of learning 

The mastery of learning is not just about intellectual humility and the willingness to learn, but also about building on existing knowledge bases and not throwing them away.

Yes, there are jobs today that did not exist yesterday – social media marketing for example. But that does not mean that you have to jump to an entirely different field to be relevant.

For example, a brick-and-mortar shoe salesman’s job may be at risk due to e-commerce. But he may want to capitalise on his knowledge of various shoe products to learn more about purchasing for the e-commerce company and not necessarily try to pick up coding skills to run the website.

Not everybody is able to pick up entirely different skill sets. And age is also a factor here. The young are better able to learn something completely new. But adults have an edge over younger employees – existing knowledge.

“If learning can be assimilated into an existing knowledge case, advantage tilts to the old,” said Dr Timothy Salthouse, Director of The Cognitive Aging Laboratory at the University of Virginia, in The Economist earlier this month (Jan 14).

So the idea of skills mastery here, is to pick up a new but related skill that extends from your existing knowledge base and not from scratch. 

Skills mastery is about striving to be the best in what you can do, so as to innovate better and progress. It’s hard to innovate when you have to build up your knowledge base again.

Which is why SkillsFuture has its fellowship programme for Singaporeans with at least 10 years of experience in the same industry or similar job function, possess deep expertise, and wish to upgrade further. Fellows will get $10,000 to spend on courses relevant to their work. This year, 30 such fellowships will be given out and the number is set to increase up to 100 annually at a later date.

While not everyone can be a fellow, there are many affordable skills-based modular courses at post-secondary institutions here for the rest of us. From customer relationship management to manpower resource management, these part-time courses courses are designed for working adults.

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Mastery of industry

How do you know what to learn if you don’t know what skills are going to be relevant in the future?

The e-commerce scene in Singapore for instance, is expected to grow to US$5.4 billion (S$7.46 billion) by 2025, up from US$1 billion in 2015, according to a report by Temasek and Google last year. The up-to-date brick-and-mortar retail worker should then work towards acquiring skills relevant to e-commerce, whether it’s purchasing or online marketing.

The shipbuilding industry has also been taking a hit. Just last year, Keppel Shipyard, one of Singapore’s largest, cut 35 per cent of its workforce, which is over 10,000 workers. Such changes do not happen overnight. Workers alert to such changes can prepare beforehand to absorb the shock better.

While there’s no need to know details like stock price movements and so on, a general awareness of industry trends is important in developing skills mastery.

Students about to enter the workforce may have the largest gap in industry related knowledge. Fresh polytechnic and ITE graduates may want to enrol in the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn programme. The work-study programme enables them to learn skills that are relevant to their industry, while drawing a regular paycheck. The certification they acquire along the way would also be recognised by other companies in the industry.

 

Mastery of social skills

Many jobs today are lost not just to lower wage workers overseas, but also to machines and automation.

By 2035, over a third of jobs held in Singapore are at risk of automation, according to a 2015 report by the Centre for Strategic Futures, Prime Minister’s Office.

The solution to securing future job prospects would be to develop social skills like negotiation and social perceptiveness. The labour market rewards workers with social skills according to a study last August (2016) by Professor David Deming of Harvard University. Between 1980 and 2012, the proportion of jobs that required high social skills increased by nearly 10 percentage points while math-intensive roles that did not require much use of social skills fell by about 3 percentage points in the same period.

The reason is that machines cannot read emotions, build consensus and basically, be human. So even though the study was conducted in the United States, the lessons for Singapore in the face of automation, is still relevant.

Again, new graduates are at a disadvantage when it comes to acquiring social skills at the workplace. Which is why they should take up internships, to start to acquire social skills at the workplace before they formally enter their careers. By 2020 all polytechnics and ITEs will have enhanced internships integrated into their core curriculum. Enhanced because there will be clearer learning outcomes and closer interactions between industry partners and educational institutes in developing the internships.

In a nutshell, acquiring skills alone does not lead to mastery. There’s a need to know what skills are relevant in the future through understanding industry trends, building on – and not discarding – existing knowledge to be able to innovate and having the social skills to get work done well.

 

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

 

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by Suhaile Md

MOST of the 6 per cent of Singaporeans who used their SkillsFuture Credits for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were below 40, reported SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) on Sunday (Jan 8). Busy with work and with little time to spare, it’s no wonder that MOOCs, which allow users to learn at a time and place of their choosing, appeal to the busy working Singaporean. Given its flexibility and eligibility for credit use, you might want to consider it too.

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SkillsFuture Credits cannot be used for just any MOOC though. It has to be one that has been approved by SSG. Still, there is a wide variety of over 2,000 courses that SSG has identified on its website. The three most popular courses were on business administration, Python programming language, and web development.

Currently (Jan 09), there are 2,212 MOOCs on the list. The courses range from general topics in problem solving to specialised ones like how to code and develop apps.

Here’s a breakdown according to course categories, costs, and duration:

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All 2,212 courses are categorised into 36 areas. The top 10 subject areas, shown in the graph above, make up nearly 92 per cent (2032) of all courses. Most courses are provided by either Coursera or Udemy.

Information and Communications by far has the most number of courses at 829 offerings (37 per cent). It includes courses on web development, programming languages like Python, Javascript, and C++, among others.

Business Management stands at second place with 325 courses (14.7 per cent). These include project management, foundations of business strategies, and conflict resolution, among others. There are some topics, like learning how to use Excel spreadsheets, or making a PowerPoint presentation, that some would consider under Business Management. But on the SSG site, these fall under “Administration”, which is a separate category on its own.

Likewise, subjects that can fall under advertising, sales and marketing, or accounting and finance, have separate categories of their own. They do not fall under the generic Business Management grouping. If these areas are considered business-related topics on the whole, then a total of 586 (26.5 per cent) of courses are available.

Beyond the top 10 categories, the remaining 26 make up only 8 per cent (180) of all courses. Some areas like fashion, sports, real estate, and marine and port services, have only one course each. 

 

 

The most expensive course ($795, before GST) on the site is a 100-hour business and financial modelling course. It’s a five-module course, created by the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, offered on the Coursera platform.

The cheapest costs $20 for about four to 12 hours of courses, on varied topics from learning how to use Excel, to launching social media marketing campaigns.

You can search for courses according to price range, but the values are preset on the site. The ranges are: Between $0 and $10, $10 and $50, $50 and $100, $100 and $500, $500 and $1,000. It goes higher, to $5,000, but there are no courses that reach that price range.

Note though, that the G gave $500 worth of credits to those 25 years old and above. Exceed the credit in your account, and you pay for the balance out of your own pocket. Also, there are plenty of free courses on Coursera and Udemy that are not reflected on the SSG site.

 

 

How much time do I need?

You can also search for courses according to the time commitment required to complete it. Like the price range search function, the time values are preset to specific ranges: Less than a day to one day, one day to one week, one week to a month, a month to six months, six months to a year, and over a year.

However, there is no clear definition of what “a day” actually means. Courses listed “a day” long range from 8.70 hours to 11.70 hours, the last of which is in effect longer than a full work day. However, you don’t have to complete the required hours in one shot, so you can spread it over a week, for instance. The shortest courses are three and a half hours long, and are considered “less than a day”.

The longest courses take 280 hours – there are only two of those. These fall under the one month to six month range. Search for courses longer than six months, and nothing turns up. So, assuming 280 hours over six months amounts to about 11.5 hours a week, or about one and a half hour per day, every day.

Yet there are also 90-hour courses that are categorised between the one week to one month range. Even if a full month is taken, it amounts to 22.5 hours a week – no small commitment if you’re working!

Basically, course duration is a very rough guide. Read the details of each course to find out more.

 

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by Suhaile Md

INTELLECTUAL humility is a buzzword these days when it comes to hiring. Grades matter, of course, but they’re not everything – your willingness to learn is another measure of how valuable you are to a company in the long run.

Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs announced that it would be looking beyond the usual on-campus interviews at elite universities like Yale and Harvard. Instead, candidates from any school can apply, and they will be screened via a video interview, reported Human Resource Magazine in June. The bank wanted to hire candidates with a wider variety of background, not just elite schools.

“Smart people tend to think they know it all and that prevent [sic] them from learning. People who are not from elite background [sic] tend to be more adaptive to learning that is important for the company to grow,” said Mr Darren Tay, director at executive search firm BTI Consultant, in the HRM article.

In other words, intellectual humility.

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Being curious

The idea is not new. Two years back, the person in charge of Google’s hiring processes, Mr Laszlo Bock, spoke about the need for intellectual humility at an interview with the New York Times.

Said Mr Bock: “Without [intellectual] humility, you are unable to learn.” Humility is also required to be able to explore ideas different to your own. The point is to come up with the best solutions to problems.

Furthermore, successful candidates who are too used to winning don’t know how to deal with failure. They “commit the fundamental attribution error, which is if something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius”. If something bad happens, they tend to blame others and not reflect on their own mistakes.

It’s a sentiment echoed by 42-year-old Mr Tan Choon Ngee, CEO of aZaaS, a Singapore-based Information Technology firm with subsidiaries in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China.

When TMG asked for the most important quality he looked for in candidates, he said it was the “willingness and ability to learn”. A candidate, no matter how qualified, “would become obsolete very fast” if there’s no intellectual humility. Having the humility to continuously learn throughout the career is important.

While Mr Tan requires candidates to have at least a diploma due to the “technical nature” of the work, he said there is no “huge preference between diploma or degree… we have diploma holders outperforming degree holders”. Learning does not stop when school ends.

“Our industry experiences high rates of change. Learning, admitting to mistakes, and re-learning is critical to success,” he added.

It’s not just the IT industry that has such demands. Mr Wesley Gunter and Mr Marc Bakker, who head a public relations and marketing firm, wrote in a commentary for TMG last month: “It would be useless for us to hire someone who thinks he/she knows everything based on their degree, compared to someone who is less qualified yet willing to learn.” It’s the “humility to accept guidance that sets [candidates] apart and allows them to grow”.

Again, these views echo that of Google’s. The most important quality Google looks for is “learning ability”, said Mr Bock.

Real-life successes

This principle of lifelong learning was underscored by former Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat at the Committee of Supply debate last year. He said that we need to “shift our mindsets about education”.  There’s a need to go “beyond learning in school, to learning throughout life”.

So it’s a good thing many Singaporeans have not stood still. Over 80,000 people have signed up for the SkillsFuture initiatives in the first eight months of this year, reported The Straits Times on Tuesday (Dec 27). Of these, 62 per cent are above 40 years old. SkillsFuture, a skills development framework that supports lifelong learning from school days to working life, was introduced by the G last year.

But SkillsFuture is not the only avenue for continual learning. There are other opportunities to learn, at the workplace for example, or online, and even the library.

Ms Amanda Ong, for example, picked up copywriting and marketing skills from books she borrowed from the library, and a year-long online course which she paid US$100 (S$144) for. She had graduated with a Political Science degree from the National University of Singapore and worked at the Ministry of Defence for over a year before leaving, as she wanted more flexible working hours.

She was giving tuition to earn her keep at first, and picked up copywriting skills on the side. It paid off, the 27-year-old is now fully employed as a copywriter at Wordplay, a copywriting and marketing firm.

Even though she has secured a full-time job, she’s still continuing with her self-education. She has just spent $400 on a self-study sales course. She wants to understand what motivates buying decisions and so on.

Her efforts are already paying off. Ms Ong said she can now “close sales with clients independently”. Previously, she needed help from her boss to do so.

 

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

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by Wan Ting Koh

MS IKUKO Yamamoto is quite the rebel.

The Japanese creator of the internationally popular Craftholic stuffed toy series may come across as demure and soft-spoken, but she certainly is no pushover. TMG spoke to Ms Yamamoto when she was in Singapore collaborating with Raffles City Shopping Centre for a festive Craftholic event late last month (Nov 23), and got to know about the inspiration behind her quirky line of toys.

We learnt how the 31-year-old knew, from working in an interior goods and lifestyle company in 2009, that the stuffed toys that she designed were going to be popular. Then a 24-year-old lady in a male-dominated workplace, comprising of 15 superiors who were all men in their 40s, Ms Yamamoto found it wasn’t easy to speak up for her creations.

“It was very very difficult to persuade the senior gentlemen”

– Ms Yamamoto on the challenges she faced in her company. 

Her superiors were not supportive of her idea, as the company only imported and sold lifestyle goods such as furnishings and houseware. There was also no public relations team to publicise for her. There was also a huge number of soft toys in the market by that time.

“It was very very difficult to persuade the senior gentlemen,” Ms Yamamoto told TMG through a Japanese translator. “I went through countless arguments and cried many times. I knew it was definitely going to be popular.”

She managed to persuade her superiors after she received compliments from customers on her designs. “They were convinced and finally let me produce my first Craftholic collection,” she recalled.

And that’s when she came up with the series, which is known for its highly huggable plushies in the shape of gangly-limbed animals with whimsical patterns and motifs, like stripes and stars.

She placed the toys in retail stores around Japan, and they became a hit with working-age ladies, who told Ms Yamamoto that they loved her toys. Ms Yamamoto describes the feeling as “yuan”, or fate, in Mandarin. The same ladies who supported her endeavour spread the word, and her plushies soon became popular. Even the salespersons in the retail stores stocked with her plushies fell in love with them.

“Let her do what she wants to do”

– Ms Yamamoto’s superiors eventually relented after her toys became an instant hit.

The company saw what was going on and changed its mind. “Let her do what she wants to do,” said her superiors. Now, some of those “senior gentlemen” even keep Craftholic toys at home. Craftholic has sold over 410,000 products as of October this year, and the brand has 42 outlets across Asia, in the Czech Republic, and Paris.

Ms Yamamoto’s pioneer four characters are the Korat Cat, Loris Monkey, Rab Bunny and Sloth Bear – derived from her doodles.

But these were not your conventional, big-eyed and big-headed characters that scream cute (think Totoro). These were alien characters with disproportionately lanky bodies. Ms Yamamoto said this was in part because the creatures’ origins. She imagines them to hail from an alien world known as Craft planet.

She attributes their lack of cute factor to her background in fashion. Ms Yamamoto graduated with a Major in Stylist Course from Bunka Fashion College in 2005.

“Maybe because what I study is fashion, so I myself love something not too cute,” said Ms Yamamoto, adding that this was its appeal to adults as well.

Even the brand’s name defies cuteness.

A portmanteau of “craft” and “holic”, the brand name connotes a certain degree of negativity, because of its link to addiction, according to Ms Yamamoto. After all, she derived the word “holic” from “alcoholic”.

Said Ms Yamamoto through the translator: “I really wanted to create something not too cute. That’s why I made it such that the name Craftholic itself is also not too cute.” She likens the name to “poison”.

“I purposely used it so that there is a balance of cute and not too cute,” added Ms Yamamoto.

But how did she get her inspiration for her weird characters? Ms Yamamoto found it hard to pinpoint the source of her ideas. She started talking about how fresh experiences, gained from travelling and sightseeing, were all sources of inspiration. However, when it got down to the specifics, she conceded that it was hard to explain.

“What inspires me is hard to be described. However from daily life, it could be travelling. It gives me inspiration,” she said. “I’m not the kind of person who will start doodling when I have the idea. I keep all ideas in my head.”

Some of the whimsical patterns on her plushies are inspired by Ms Yamamoto’s hobby of making ceramic art. Apart from pottery, Ms Yamamoto, who is single, enjoys collecting snow domes and outdoor activities such as camping, biking, and taking road trips.

How about in Singapore? From its small kiosk space in Plaza Singapura back in 2010, Craftholic has since moved to a proper shopfront in the mall and expanded to three other stores in Raffles City Shopping Centre, Bugis+ and Wisma Atria – a testament to the plushies’ popularity in Singapore.

When asked whether Singaporeans might get their own Singapore-inspired Craftholic, Ms Yamamoto said she was pondering the idea.

How about a Merlion character? “Maybe,” she said, smiling.

 

Craftholic currently has a pop-up store, which features a limited edition Denim Collection, at level three of Raffles City Shopping Centre from now until next Tuesday (Dec 27).


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by Wan Ting Koh

SAY hi to Mr Sim Say Hai, one of Singapore’s most tech-savvy uncle.

He has an iPad Mini, a 27-inch Lenovo desktop computer, an iPhone 6s Plus and an Apple Watch, all of which he uses seamlessly. Not impressed yet? Consider this: This uncle is 92 years old.

His age has been no barrier to his love of learning and tinkering with new technology. While others of his generation might shy away from gadgets, Mr Sim embraces them for their perceived convenience to his life. Plus, learning how to use them has become second nature for the retiree, who only got to learn how to use the computer after he retired at age 58.

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Mr Sim using his iPad Mini, which he brings to his church meetings on Fridays and reads his meeting minutes from.

TMG visited Mr Sim at his Serangoon Road home one morning after first meeting him at an Honour film screening earlier this year. Mr Sim had attended the event as a guest of honour as a star in one of the featured films. The film, produced by his granddaughter, was an homage to Mr Sim, who was a pioneer in Singapore’s then budding telecoms industry. The year was 1948 when Mr Sim started working in what is now known as Singtel. Back then, it was called The Telecommunications Department of Singapore.

While Mr Sim did not attend university, the English-educated man managed to land a telegraph operator job in the Telecoms Department where he sent and received telegraphic messages. His true calling, however, lay in mechanics of the equipment – something which captivated him.

“I was interested in it, so on my own I started learning about electrical things. In school, I was interested in science – chemistry and physics,” said Mr Sim.

So he bought his own textbooks and studied. He sat for external qualifying exams on topics to do with telegraph, radio and engineering and passed all of them. He impressed the station engineer-in-charge who converted Mr Sim to a junior technical officer overseeing Very High Frequency (VHF) telecommunication signals. From there, he worked his way to the top.

“Towards the end, without any university paper, I was promoted to position of engineer,” he recalled.

His journey with the telecommunications industry may have ended when Mr Sim retired at 58, but his learning did not. Between the 1980s and the 1990s when the computer industry started booming, Mr Sim decided to pick up computer skills on his own.

When asked why he didn’t simply sit back and enjoy his golden age, the grandfather of nine, who stays with a grandson, said he had occasion to type some letters and send emails. He would be “very happy” if he could learn it, he said.

He described using an old secondhand computer given by his daughter and learning how to type from a typing tutor software. Eventually, he acquired Microsoft programmes such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

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Technology was not his only interest. During his retirement, Mr Sim also dabbled in photography – the fruits of his hobby were all kept neatly categorised in folders according to date in his Lenovo desktop. Most were family photos which he had taken with the digital camera.

It did not stop there for Mr Sim, who went on to learn Photoshop five to 10 years ago in order to edit the pictures. “I bought [a digital camera] and found that I can take pictures, [if] I can print and enlarge, it will look so nice,” said Mr Sim.

He went to the library to borrow a book for Photoshop and photocopied sections of it. He would refer to these notes when he encountered something he didn’t know how to do. From there, he learnt how to insert, delete, brighten, sharpen, paste or change the colour of an image.

Nowadays, Mr Sim’s use of Photoshop is confined to creating birthday invitations which he sends to family and friends through email ahead of his birthday on August 3. For last year’s invitation, Mr Sim took a selfie, printed out the photograph, traced his features on tracing paper, then scanned the sketched image back into his computer. From there, he superimposed the scanned image in his birthday invitation along with the details and Clipart.

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Mr Sim did his own birthday invitation, replete with decorations, text and a sketched portrait of his face.

When asked if he will continue making personalised invitations, he immediately said: “I will.” “I enjoy this kind of thing. I felt satisfaction,” said Mr Sim, adding that he considered it a success, going by the favourable feedback from friends and family members who said it was “very humorous”.

“Those days, I only wanted to learn small things. But it becomes more and more. I became more involved. I wanted to learn how to send and receive, I wanted to learn how to type apart from the typewriter,” he said. “When you need certain things, you will try and satisfy it.”

These days, Mr Sim uses his various gadgets to check and read emails, the Bible, surf the internet and watch DVDs.

 

Wise words

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Mr Sim answers a call on his Apple Watch.

Mr Sim’s learning journey hasn’t been all smooth sailing though. He’s had his share of challenges, one of which is age. “It is easy to learn. But when you don’t do it every day, then you forget. At this age, I cannot remember a lot of things, I forget more than I learn,” he said.

“The connection inside is broken,” he added, pointing at his head.

But he is adamant that others younger than him should not stop learning, even though some from his generation might be averse to learning new technology.

“If you are 70 years old, you should learn. At that age your brain is still working well,” he said.

His advice to others trying to get started? Introduce them to simple functions, such as sending emails or chatting through WhatsApp.

“You can remember one or two things enough what. Remember how to contact and learn how to increase contacts. Very soon you will want to know how to do all sorts of things. But you must get them to do simple things,” he said.

“Once they find that it is not difficult, they will do more.”

 

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
  9. SMACK IN THE MIDDLE: More skills, more agile, more resilient
  10. 50 Faces: The big gig economy

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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by Bertha Henson

THE Carrier man can. I can’t get the jingle out of my head even though it’s been so many years ago that Carrier was the air-conditioning of choice here. I suppose it has to do with US President-elect Donald Trump boasting about saving 1,100 jobs at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis from moving to Mexico.

It’s been an interesting duel between corporate interest and political inclination. In between are the unions and the workers.

It’s interesting because it has to do with the push and pulls of globalisation and also what this says about an attempt to transform the economy, which is what Singapore is doing.

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So Mr Trump was elected on a platform of protecting American jobs, which is something every worker in danger of losing a pay check approves. He’s doing it with a combination of threats, like a 35 per cent tax on companies which intend to move out of the land of the free and, in the case of Carrier and its parent United Technologies (UTC), $7 million in tax breaks over 10 years.

Then there is the looming threat to the company’s current $6.7 billion worth of federal contracts. UTC chairman and CEO Greg Hayes alluded to this in an interview with CNBC: “I was born at night but not last night. I also know that about 10 per cent of our revenue comes from the U.S. government. And I know that a better regulatory environment, a lower tax rate can eventually help UTC of the long run. And so we weighed all of things in making the decision.”

But what exactly has been saved? The numbers are a bone of contention. It’s not 1,100 but 800, said union chief Chuck Jones, because the other 300 white-collar jobs were never in danger of being outsourced. Mr Trump, said Mr Jones, had “lied his a** -off.”

At least, there are 800 jobs saved right? Hurray!

But hear what the UTC chief has to say: “We’re going to make up US$16 million (S$22 million) investment in that factory in Indianapolis to automate to drive the cost down so that we can continue to be competitive. Now is it as cheap as moving to Mexico with lower cost labour? No. But we will make that plant competitive just because we’ll make the capital investments there.”

“But what that ultimately means is there will be fewer jobs.”

Then he said this, which sounded exactly like what the G or NTUC chief Chan Chun Sing would say: “The jobs are not jobs on assembly line that people really find all that attractive over the long term. I would tell you the key here, is not to be trained for the job today. Our focus is how do you train people for the jobs of tomorrow?”

The key is not to be trained for the job today. It’s for the jobs of tomorrow.

On that front, he claimed that UTC had spent $1.2 billion on training over the last 20 years.

“We’ve got 7,000 people currently enrolled in this programme. And the whole idea is to improve your own marketability. Improve your own skills. Because the skills that you have today are not the skills that are gonna get you through tomorrow.”

Of course, nobody wants to hear corporate types go on about justifying jobs and investments; everybody thinks that they are out only for their self-interest.

Headlines will be about the union’s outbursts, whether UTC was strong-armed, and Trump’s enraged tweets. They make for better reading. Why talk about how the workers were told three years ago about the move when the popular thing to do is to decry hard-headed business which couldn’t be bothered about breaking rice bowls and dinner plates?

In Singapore, Mr Hayes would have been praised for his training programme and for trying to transform his workplace by having more higher-value jobs.

And his company is doing this without any G handout! The workers would be told of their options and put through subsidised training programmes to “re-skill” – or for the more ambitious, to “upskill”. Some will use their SkillsFuture credits.

If this article sounds like a rah-rah piece praising the G’s foresight, it is. It’s tough to get people to look at the machinery powering the economy; we prefer to look at Man’s woes because we identify so much with their emotions.

America might have a new president promising to make the country great again by turning inward. Its private sector thinks differently. Mr Hayes’ parting shot during the interview was this: “It’s about life-long learning.”

 

Read the other pieces from our interview with Chan Chun Sing:

  1. Chan Chun Sing: Your job is NOT safe
  2. Chan Chun Sing: Making sure freelancers aren’t fleeced
  3. Chan Chun Sing: It’s working people; not working class

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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