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National manpower strategy pivots on mindset change

The govt, citizens and employers all have to play their part to produce industry-relevant skills, lifelong learning



THIS year's Budget debate has moved beyond the usual manpower crunch grouses, towards the need for industry-relevant skills and lifelong learning - a welcome development.

But now comes the hard part. If the SkillsFuture push is to succeed, the entire nation - the government, citizens, and employers - must undergo a hefty mindset switch.

The government, on its part, will need to tweak its approach to measuring outcomes, augmenting quantitative assessments with qualitative ones. Singaporeans will have to take ownership of their own skills upgrading, using their SkillsFuture Credits thoughtfully and responsibly. And companies must be willing to invest meaningfully in their workers, instead of merely paying lip service to the endeavour.

"I think Singaporeans and employers really have to come on board and be self-motivated about this," said Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan. "Because you can have the best framework in terms of the hardware that the government puts in, but if the operating system is not geared towards improvement, then I think we are probably going to throw good money after causes that don't really (bear fruit)."

Indeed, several observers told The Business Times that fundamental attitudinal shifts must first occur at the individual level.

OCBC economist Selena Ling noted the uphill task in convincing parents that trades-based vocations are as worthy of recognition as professions. DBS economist Irvin Seah, meanwhile, stressed that Singaporeans should be self-reliant in taking charge of their own skills upgrading, instead of waiting for nudges from the government.

Lamenting Singaporeans' penchant for "gaming the system", Prof Tan added that citizens must be responsible when spending their SkillsFuture Credits, and refrain from choosing courses willy-nilly. "People should really be internally driven, rather than saying: 'Oh, I should tap (the funds), otherwise they'll go to waste'."

Another challenge will lie in getting companies to commit to SkillsFuture, especially given the manpower shortage. Said Mr Seah: "Companies themselves are already facing a labour crunch, so it's going to be a challenge when workers go for training. It'll definitely have some effect on their productivity, so are companies willing to do that?"

He and other commentators underscored the need for companies to change their perspective of on-the-job training, which has often been seen as a waste of time - whether because it creates downtime, or because there is a chance that employees could quit before the benefits of upgrading are reaped.

More than a few echoed what Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had said in November: "It is inevitable in a tight labour market that you lose some of your people as you develop them. But what goes around comes around (if) a large core of employers in each sector get on to this journey, agree on skills standards, and invest in their people."

While observers lauded the government's move to project skills needs with sectoral manpower plans (SMPs), several noted the difficulty in ensuring that these are not rendered obsolete by the time they are implemented.

Said Singapore International Chamber of Commerce chief executive Victor Mills: "The problem with thinking about what jobs are going to be like in the next 10 years is that to some degree, it's crystal ball-gazing."

Nevertheless, both he and Mizuho economist Vishnu Varathan agreed that employer engagement will be crucial in building up each SMP, since companies will be able to pin-point where the current skills gaps are.

Individuals and corporates aside, however, the Singapore government will also need to undergo its own mindset change, observers told BT.

In particular, it will have to rethink quantitative assessment tools when measuring SkillsFuture's success - supplementing these with more qualitative ones.

For example, it would be too simplistic to evaluate SkillsFuture using traditional "bean counting" methods - by the number of courses offered, the number of hours spent on training, or the take-up rate of the SkillsFuture Credit Scheme.

"Measures like the take-up rate are going to be very superficial. Whether the rubber hit the road or not will be more telling in other measures," said Mr Varathan, who gave examples such as the retention rate of employees, employee satisfaction, and whether interns are converted to permanent positions upon graduation.

Added Ms Ling: "It's not all about getting X number of doctors, lawyers, or engineers. (If SkillsFuture is successful) we should see greater job diversity, with people wanting to be artists, designers, craftsmen, plumbers . . . Industry feedback is going to be very important as well. We shouldn't hear as many companies saying that they can't find locals to fill a particular job because of a lack of expertise or even interest."

Still, observers emphasised that SkillsFuture is a "massive" undertaking - with early results only showing up in five years, at the soonest.

Added Mr Varathan: "This is going to have a long gestation period . . . While the government should certainly collect the data, no one should make a big deal out of it so soon. We should be considering annual data as single data points, since we'll only be able to make sense of it after many years."