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Change mindset towards skills training in Covid-19 and beyond: SkillsFuture Forum 2020 panel

Bosses have to set the tone so that workers are encouraged and see training as a win-win situation.

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The panellists at the SkillsFuture Forum 2020 (from left): Ong Tze-Ch'in, CEO, SkillsFuture Singapore; Choe Peng Sum, CEO, Pan Pacific Hotels Group; Adeline Sim, executive director & chief legal officer, HRnetGroup; Toby Koh, group managing director, Ademco Security Group; Susan Chong, CEO, Greenpac; and moderator Christopher Lim, digital editor, The Business Times.

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Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung delivering his speech during this year's SkillsFuture Month at the SkillsFuture Forum 2020 held at the Lifelong Learning Institute on July 17.

EMPLOYERS and workers alike have to change their mindsets towards skills training, especially as disruption arising from the coronavirus pandemic has spurred a rethink of businesses and, in turn, their workforce, industry players said at the SkillsFuture Forum 2020 panel discussion last Friday.

For instance, businesses in the hotel industry, which is known to be very labour intensive, have to rethink what they do, and their organisational structures, said Pan Pacific Hotels Group chief executive Choe Peng Sum. This could include delayering and clustering, which would then involve redesigning jobs and reskilling employees.

At Pan Pacific, Mr Choe said, the group has temporarily closed some of its hotels during the pandemic for redesigning. The redesign is to be complemented by job redesign and reskilling.

"That's why it's so important to actually take advantage of what the government has for us to reskill and retool," he said.

Currently, more than 20,000 training opportunities are expected to be generated under skills programmes, said SkillsFuture Singapore chief executive Ong Tze-Ch'in.

"The scale of it is unprecedented because of the amount of transformation and change that is happening out there in the industry and the workplace. We need to support and equip our individuals and workers with those skills for their new future," he said.

Yet, employers first have to change their mindset towards skills training, and set the tone so that workers are encouraged.

Susan Chong, chief executive at packaging supplier Greenpac, said: "The difference with pre-Covid is that of mindset, because when you talk to a lot of small and medium enterprises, they don't see the need. But because there's a lot of (government) initiatives, they've been sending staff for productivity training."

Yet, she observed that there seemed to be no improvement in productivity afterwards. She believed that it could be due to bosses turning down suggestions from employees that had returned from the training: "When the bosses don't see the need for the investment, it's like, who are you to tell me what to do?"

Hence, the change in mindset towards training has to be top down, Ms Chong said.

Similarly, Toby Koh, group managing director at Ademco Security Group, pointed out that the adoption of technology and up-skilling of security officers has been "very slow", even though the need and concept for it have been laid out in an Industry Transformation Map (ITM).

"Sometimes, I think business owners need to start looking a little more closely at the ITMs that are out there, and making use of it," Mr Koh said.

At the end of the day, "the leadership of the company has to set the tone", he added.

In addition, how employers contextualise and communicate the need for training in this time of crisis to employees will be crucial, the panellists said.

"I would have to say that framing and contextualising is critical in this period. I think there's a lot of uncertainty; employees are concerned about how the job is going to change. Will there still be a role for me?" said SkillsFuture's Mr Ong.

"So, any reskilling programme needs to be put in context, in terms of where the business wants to get to, what it wants to be, and how the training will be part of business transformation."

The way that training is communicated is also important because people typically don't like change, added Mr Choe of Pan Pacific.

He said: "If there's a win-win (situation), oh, they will go for it. But if it's not planned well - I think even some statements that we've done before - it won't work. Even one sentence can kill a project."

Some of the business leaders have given employees some form of a stake in the business, or let them feel that they have one.

At HRnetGroup, every employee, through financial schemes, is impacted by the overall profitability of the group, said the company's executive director and chief legal officer Adeline Sim.

Meanwhile, Pan Pacific called on employees to hunker down and ride out the storm with the group, assuring them that it would continue to hire them even though it would have to implement pay cuts, when it was forced to temporarily close some properties in China in the earlier days of the virus outbreak.

"They said, no problem, Mr Choe, as long as we are part of this team, we will take it," Mr Choe recounted. "If they feel that this is their business and it therefore affects their livelihood, I think you get a huge buy-in."

EMBRACING GROWTH

To be sure, workers also need to be open to change and learning. "Often, the first step is the mindset and what we really want is for every Singaporean, every individual, to embrace that growth mindset, to have that embracing of lifelong learning, soak up new opportunities and skills, and be excited to learn new things," said Mr Ong.

Agreeing, Ms Sim at HRnetGroup gave an example of how, before the pandemic, the group had tried to roll out a "selfie check-in" to replace physical timesheets for employees, but faced resistance from some quarters.

However, when Singapore implemented a partial lockdown, the group got 3,000 people to shift to the "selfie check-in" method within a day. "A lot of it is in the mind, it's whether you can accept it and just try," Ms Sim said.

Workers that embrace growth stand to take on more meaningful or value-adding jobs that may also fetch them better pay.

In the security industry, for instance, the opportunity is for security officers to perform higher value roles that machines cannot, such as risk assessment and interactions with members of the public, said Ademco's Mr Koh.

"And that is the way where their pay will be bumped up to the stage where PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) may be attracted to a security officer's role, because he's also no longer going to be patrolling around the place; he's going to be doing more and adding value to the industry."

About 1,300 people have signed up for the more than 6,500 training places available under the SGUnited Skills Programme so far.

The SGUnited Skills Programme is part of the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package announced in May to support up to 100,000 job seekers amid the Covid-19 pandemic, by way of job vacancies, traineeships and training opportunities.

The training places currently span over 113 courses offered by 13 training providers. The offerings will be built up further in the coming months, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung at the SkillsFuture Forum held last Friday.

The event is supported by The Business Times and The Straits Times. A memorandum of understanding was also signed that day by SkillsFuture, Singapore Management University and eight companies to launch a programme aimed at helping mid-career professionals, managers and executives pivot into new careers.

The eight firms are: Enterprise 50 Association, Prudential Singapore, Sunray Woodcraft Construction, PBA Robotics, Top International, Goldbell Group, Thong Siek Food Industry, and Commonwealth Capital.

Some of the topics covered in the training programme include business and environmental sustainability, business innovation and digital transformation.

For companies, there is the Enhanced Training Support Package (ETSP), which gives all employers absentee payroll support at 90 per cent of workers' hourly basic salary - capped at S$10 an hour - as a form of cash flow relief when employees are sent for training.

Extra help is available for sectors deemed severely affected by the pandemic: tourism, retail, food services, aviation, land transport and arts and culture. Companies in those industries can get funding for up to 90 per cent of their employees' course fees.

As at June 19, employees from nearly 800 companies had taken up training places under the ETSP.

READ EXCERPT FROM SKILLSFUTURE FORUM 2020 PANEL DISCUSSION: Equipping workers with digital skills for a new future: SkillsFuture Forum 2020 panel.

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