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In reskilling financial sector, a new point of sale

IBF launches new career centre to address skills gap, offer job matchmaking amid big skills push by financial industry

Launching the IBF Careers Connect on Wednesday were (from left): Tan Choon Shian, chief executive of Workforce Singapore; Ng Nam Sin, CEO of The Institute of Banking & Finance Singapore; Patrick Tay, assistant secretary-general, National Trades Union Congress; Mr Ong; Mr Menon; Samuel Tsien, group CEO of OCBC; and Gilbert Tan, CEO of Employment and Employability Institute (e2i).


AMID lingering concerns of automation and digital technology displacing jobs in Singapore's financial industry, the sector's national accreditation agency has launched its one-stop career centre meant to offer training to tackle skill gaps.

The Institute of Banking and Finance Singapore (IBF) on Wednesday launched IBF Careers Connect, a centre located within the MAS Building for finance industry professionals to find ways to upgrade their skills, and match themselves up with new jobs.

Speaking at the launch of the centre at IBF, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung noted that Singapore is at the first phase of embracing technology, and that innovation can raise the country's competitiveness and create new jobs.

Indeed, the aim set by the government is for the financial industry here to create 3,000 net jobs every year in financial services. An additional 1,000 net jobs per annum are also expected to come from the fintech sector. Over 2016 and 2017, some 7,800 jobs had been created on a net basis, driven by the insurance and fund-management industries, and, to a lesser extent, by the banking industry, MAS said earlier this year.

But technology remains a double-edged sword, Mr Ong added.

"Innovation has become the new expectation," he said. "But if the first phase is not handled well, then sentiments and workers' attitude will turn against us. It becomes disruption, and about losing your rice bowl."

This means workers have to be retrained before their jobs are lost or disrupted, with Mr Ong noting that there has to be early intervention as job activities become redundant.

Estimates for at-risk jobs here are hard to pin down at this point, but major consumer banks were asked last year to retrain some 3,500 existing employees within three years. To date, about 1,250 of these staff - or about a third - have been trained, including 450 who have moved into new roles, said Mr Ong.

Banks have said jobs that are repetitive in nature can be automated at scale. And to be sure, those in the financial industry are welcoming of digital technology. A recent IBF survey of 1,028 financial professionals showed that most felt technology could drive efficiencies, including in replacing repetitive activities with automation.

Yet, while two in five find it important to pick up new skills for the digital economy, they simultaneously find no urgency to do so. To add, nearly 80 per cent are not fully aware of the training openings available.

At a media briefing this week, senior bankers noted that such training programmes need to offer incentives to be attractive. Banks have to use "different tiers of carrots" to help in unlocking the curiosity of its staff, said Paul Cobban, chief data and transformation officer at DBS.

At UOB, some 40 per cent of the bank's 900 staff who have gone through the Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) are aged 40 years and above, but can adapt to the training on digital technology once it is made relatable to their work functions, said Janet Young, head of UOB's group channels and digitalisation.

"Age is not an inhibitor. We must remove the fear," she said.

There should also be clear opportunities for career progression with training, Ms Young pointed out. Indeed, the banks here have examples of staff who moved to generally higher-paying roles, shifting from teller jobs into managerial roles.

Part of making training a priority is allowing staff to take time off work to attend courses, Citibank Singapore's retail banking head Charles Wong said. With that, there has been a healthy shift of staff moving into new areas where jobs are in demand, such as in anti-money laundering compliance, he observed.

There is also a veil of prestige that comes with going through training, with some of the skills passed on through mentorship, said Mr Cobban.

Still, this comes as there have been extreme examples of recent job displacements in the financial industry globally, with Sweden's Nordea Bank having cut 8 per cent of its staff count from a year ago, shaving costs for the profitable lender. Nordea's CEO had sounded dour predictions that the financial industry may only have half of its current workforce in 10 years.

Back at home, the government signalled last year that financial institutions should not be too trigger-happy in firing their staff as a "tendency", and in the name of disruption.

Citi's Mr Wong noted that reskilling rather than retrenchment has an intangible impact of maintaining staff morale. "It allows the staff to see us as a more humane organisation. It's not just about spreadsheets and numbers."

Similarly, UOB's Ms Young pointed out that any staff turnover means disruption. "The focus has to be on training and not retrenchment, to make sure that we hang on to the people."

OCBC in July said it would cut half of its bank teller jobs in two years. All the tellers at the 51 local branches of Singapore's second-largest bank will be retrained over the next five years to take on digital or advisory roles. It has more than 300 of such frontline staff; over the past five years, OCBC's bank teller headcount has been reduced by 15 per cent as branch footfall drops along with more customers going digital.

Within the next two years, all UOB bank tellers will be able to take on broader roles at the branches as they undergo training. At this point, one in four UOB bank tellers has had his or her role expanded to include digital guidance or advisory services.

DBS, Singapore's largest bank, was the first bank here to announce plans to reskill 1,500 employees. Since October, around two-thirds of all branch employees have been trained, and the remaining third will undergo training in the next 12 months. These employees to be retrained are not just from the branches but also from back-end operations in consumer banking and institutional banking.

Indeed, there are expectations that workers in the financial industry should see a higher frequency of change in their job roles within the industry. "This is the new reality," said MAS managing director Ravi Menon at the launch. "Technology is transforming the financial industry. Some new jobs are being created, some old ones displaced, while most jobs are being transformed."

IBF Careers Connect will also work with its partner agencies, Employment and Employability Institute, Workforce Singapore, and National Trades Union Congress, to support finance professionals exploring jobs in other industries.