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Industries race ahead to beef up digital skills

But firms, unions say training efforts not pegged to economic slowdown

ComfortDelGro Corp staff testing the mobile data terminal used in taxis. The transport operator has inked seven training-related pacts with the National Transport Workers' Union.


THE state of the economy seems to have little impact on company training plans, as businesses rolled out a slew of union-led staff-upgrading projects in recent months.

With digital skills top on the agenda, stakeholders stressed that the jobscape is evolving as the industry changes, whether or not the economy hits speed bumps.

Initiatives under way include Singtel's pledge in mid-September to invest S$45 million over three years in 12,600 employees, as well as a S$5 million commitment in August by developer CapitaLand - another Temasek-linked heavyweight - to train some 2,600 workers over two years.

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Some companies, such as CapitaLand, dubbed their moves an intensification of previous efforts. Similarly, transport operator ComfortDelGro Corp has inked seven training-related pacts with the National Transport Workers' Union, with group chief corporate communications officer Tammy Tan telling The Business Times that investment in staff was "steadily increased" over time as "operational and strategic needs" spur demand for training.

Koh Poh Koon, deputy secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), said in an e-mailed response to press queries that business transformation in Singapore - which includes the setting-up of company training committees (CTCs) - "will take time and will continue regardless of the economic situation".

CTCs like those at Singtel and CapitaLand are meant to help workers gain skills "in the face of digitalisation, technological advancements and company transformation", he noted. The NTUC has rolled out more than 60 CTCs since April - with a target of 1,000 by 2022 - to complement policymakers' industry transformation maps (ITMs) across 23 sectors.

Lim Hock Heng, a supply chain site director for drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), also said that "there is no direct link between economic and labour conditions and our skills upgrading strategy". GSK was among 32 manufacturers that made a sector-based pact to set up CTCs in May.

Rather, GSK is developing a strategy to prepare workers for industry transformation, given the take-up of digital tools such as data analytics and machine learning.

The national digital skills drive comes amid societal concerns about the future of work. Two in five Singaporeans fret about how technology will affect their jobs, with fears of becoming redundant or lacking the right skills, a PwC poll has found.

At Singtel, which spent S$15.6 million on staff training in its last financial year, chief human resources officer Aileen Tan told BT that "we remain focused on training and re-skilling" regardless of how the economy is faring - even as average annual training time rose from 30.4 hours to 34.8 hours over the past three years, excluding efforts at Australian subsidiary Optus.

With Singtel zooming into new areas such as cybersecurity, an all-digital mobile consumer brand, and a potential virtual bank, Ms Tan said that "the onset of the digital economy has made it critical that we deepen the digital skills of our staff".

She also said that a digital learning platform - which the telco uses - complements class sessions and on-the-job training with flexible, modular courses: "As businesses increasingly adopt digital learning, we believe traditional metrics such as training hours per person need to evolve."

And ComfortDelGro's Ms Tan also said that the group is focusing on "digital, innovation and leadership training", and is tapping e-learning for its staff.

Likewise, CapitaLand's training plans could entail robotics, artificial intelligence, coding and data analytics training, said group human resources head Angeline Oh. She added that the curriculum will "future-proof our employees" so they can keep up with tech and innovation progress.

Data from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) put the job vacancy rate at 2.6 per cent, as at end-June - about 48,500 unfilled positions - with an above-average vacancy rate of 5.2 per cent in information technology (IT) and other information services.

Indeed, more than nine in 10 Singapore employers find it tough to hire professionals adept in the new technology that the firms use, according to a survey earlier this year. About the same proportion expect problems in training staff members for that tech, and recruitment firm Robert Half - which did the poll - attributed the gap to how digital change may have outpaced workers picking up the skills needed.

One hurdle with filling vacancies is how "it will take time for tertiary institutions to develop more IT professionals and to re-skill existing employees", said Koh Juan Kiat, executive director of the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF).

According to the MOM, the number of employees who were put on a shorter work week or temporarily laid-off rose to 970 in the second quarter - the third straight quarterly increase. Still, the MOM added in its labour market report: "During this period, workers can also take the opportunity to undergo training to upgrade their skills and improve employability."

On top of curbing turnover and attracting talent, Ho Meng Kit, chief executive of the Singapore Business Federation, noted that companies' investment in staff helps to reduce capability gaps so they are better placed for the up-cycle.

Other job re-skilling schemes in place include the government's professional conversion programmes (PCPs). With more than 100 PCPs in place, lead agency Workforce Singapore is weighing where new ones may be needed: infocomm and media, financial services, healthcare and other "key growth sectors", a spokesman said.

But Mr Koh cautioned that, as the pace of industry change picks up, training schemes must be rolled out more quickly than before; and bosses and employees must be more open to "bite-sized training which may not lead to any certification".