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Automation also leaves skilled jobs unfilled, says DPM Tharman

The focus so far has been on jobs lost to machines, he says, but existing and newly created jobs still need takers

Mr Tharman says employers in advanced economies are looking for people to take the new skilled jobs that are being created, and that many such job openings will come up in the next 15 years.


A forum on Tuesday on the future of jobs threw up at least two takeaways: One is that the fear that fast-changing technology is killing jobs is over-blown; the other is that where jobs are most at risk, there is a big shortage of skills.

The first takeaway came from Diaan-Yi Lin, managing director at global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, who said that some 43 per cent of the "activities" in Singapore workplaces can be automated "by using adaptions to current technology".

These activities are mostly menial tasks, which she stressed are not equivalent to jobs. Such tasks can be easily replaced by machines.

In reality, however, it will take time to wipe out the jobs that incorporate such activities because of regulatory and legal issues as well as investment cost, she said.

The other takeaway at the forum hosted by McKinsey & Company at Suntec City came from Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who said the focus has been on the thinning of the broad middle layer in the job structure, as machines take over jobs that are mainly routine and repetitious in the manufacturing, healthcare and the retail sector.

But little attention is given to the skilled jobs that still need to be filled in these areas - jobs that still exist and jobs that have been newly created.

Mr Tharman, who is also Co-ordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, said: "These are good jobs. In virtually every relatively advanced economy, including the United States, employers are crying out for people to take on the new skilled jobs that are being created… At least for the next 15 years, there are plenty of opportunities for the people to be skilled up to take on the jobs in the middle."

He described the overall job situation as "fluid"; the old class structure of the workforce is breaking down. Blue-collar workers are going to be more skillfull at performing highly skilled tasks; workers will no longer hold merely operations-type jobs, but jobs entailing "thinking and making" and "thinking and designing" as well.

Nurses are already doing a good part of the job doctors and surgeons used to do, he noted.

If this development is left to the market, he warned that society will become "polarised". So the government has had to intervene to play the role of co-ordinator, and so help workers to improve their job skills and companies to put in place a more fluid organisational structure.

This could produce a democratising effect, boosting everyone's ability so that people do not fill predictable roles throughout their lifetime, he said.

Mr Tharman said the SkillsFuture programme, funded largely by the state, is meant not only to provide Singaporeans more relevant life-long learning and help them keep up with a dynamic job market, but also to maximise their potential as individuals.

He noted that societies tend to focus on the early potential of their people, and neglect them later in life. It is no wonder they often fail to realise the full potential of their human capital.

Mr Tharman said it is still early days for Singapore - and the training culture is yet to take root here. There is no sign, for instance, that local small and medium-sized enterprises have taken ownership of training for their workers.

Speeding up learning will be the name of the game going forward, he said; a country which can do it will gain a competitive edge and become a winner.