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SINGAPORE'S future lies not only in having a competitive economy, but also in creating a society in which citizens achieve their fullest potential, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Wednesday.
To this end, the 25-member SkillsFuture Council - a new panel he chairs - will develop an integrated system of education, training and career progression for Singaporeans; it will also promote industry support for individuals to advance based on skills, and foster a culture of life-long learning.
Speaking to reporters after the council's first meeting, which lasted 31/2 hours, Mr Tharman said: "This is not just about the economy. It's about our society. We can only succeed if we have competitive firms, but if we achieve competitiveness by sticking to average competencies and average wages, then we are not achieving our social objectives.
"The only way in which we can stay competitive, as well as help Singaporeans develop themselves to the fullest and achieve their aspirations, is by developing mastery in every field. That's not just the way companies can stay competitive globally, but how we enable individuals to flower.
"So SkillsFuture is about that combination of economic and social objectives. And it's ultimately about becoming an advanced society."
Announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the National Day Rally in August, the SkillsFuture Council comprises representatives from the government, industry, unions, employers and educational and training institutions.
Apart from government ministers, members of the inaugural team include Singapore Business Federation chairman Teo Siong Seng, BreadTalk Group chairman George Quek and Singapore National Employers Federation president Robert Yap. The council members have been appointed to a two-year term.
At its maiden meeting, the council identified four key thrusts in the national drive to imbue in the people relevant skills for the future. These are:
Even as Mr Tharman acknowledged the "long journey" ahead and said it was too early to put a dollar value to what this skills-development drive will cost the government, he disclosed details on the first initiatives to be rolled out next year.
First, sector-focused frameworks for skill advancement and career development will be introduced.
The council declined to say which "key sectors" would be targeted first.
Mr Tharman said: "(This will involve) very deep collaboration with the employers because it has to be relevant to their needs. It can't be something imposed by a skills bureaucracy ... It has to allow for some free play for each employer, because they've got very specific needs and you don't just want to force them to meet a classification for a whole industry or the whole economy ...
"But neither can we just leave it to the market, leave it to individual employers to do their own thing. There has to be some degree of coordination. And that's a balance that has to be struck."
Second, education and career guidance officers will be placed in some secondary schools in the second half of 2015.
Council member Aziz Amirali Merchant, the executive director of engineering in Keppel FELS, said this is crucial and added: "These counsellors will advise students on what is out there and what the real skills required are, so they can make informed choices - rather than train for something that will make finding a job difficult later."
Third, enhanced internships for polytechnic students and "place-and-train" programmes for fresh polytechnic and ITE graduates will be rolled out.
Council member Bernard How, the Premier Services director for Asia-Pacific Services in Microsoft Operations, said this would help to level the playing field for fresh hires: "Not everyone comes from a well-connected family. So the more we create paths for individuals (early on), the more they're connected with potential employers."
Companies which participate in such "place-and-train" initiatives will stand to gain from a package of support measures now being finalised.
Mr Tharman said: "Employers are critical to what we want to achieve. SkillsFuture is not just about boosting skills supply, but boosting skills demand and employer recognition of workers' skills and mastery.
"It is inevitable in a tight labour market that you lose some of your people as you develop them. (But) if a large core of employers in each sector gets on to this journey, agrees on skills standards and invests in their people, what goes around comes around."