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A mutual interest in education

Singapore has benefited much from Switzerland's generous sharing of her knowledge on many fronts and her cooperation in various areas, especially education and training.

Mr Ong: "As the SkillsFuture movement gains momentum, I hope industries will recognise their shared responsibility with the education system in building a skilled workforce comprising masters from diverse fields."

FOR the past 50 years, Singapore has benefited greatly from Switzerland's generosity - from economic cooperation to her openness in sharing valuable insights on defence, research and education. Swiss companies have made significant investments in the chemicals, pharmaceuticals, fast-moving consumer goods, logistics and biologics sectors. Today, that cooperation continues to gather momentum. One such area is in education and training.

Perhaps because we are both small nations, our countries have placed great emphasis on developing our people. For Singapore, one area which we have learnt most from Switzerland is its well-developed Vocation Education and Training (VET) system. To some extent, it inspired our SkillsFuture movement. In this regard, Singapore and Switzerland co-organised the forum SkillsFuture - Developing a Future Ready Workforce, on the occasion of the first State Visit to Singapore by President of the Swiss Confederation Johann N Schneider-Ammann on July 12, 2016.

The Swiss VET system is strongly employer and market driven, and its school and work-based learning are well integrated. It is backed by closely intertwined fundamentals such as a tradition of quality apprenticeships, a strong culture of industry-driven training, and a deep-seated respect for skills mastery in a wide range of professions. We cannot replicate the Swiss model, even if we implement all the features in Singapore, because of the different historical and cultural circumstances of our countries. But there are valuable insights that we can draw upon, as we chart our own path towards building a skills-based economy through the national SkillsFuture movement.

There are two important characteristics of the Swiss VET model that I find to be of particular learning value.

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First, the great emphasis on "learning by doing". Swiss students spend a substantial amount of time at the workplace. This keeps them abreast of the latest industry developments, and hones their practical skills through real-life work experiences. Last year, I had the opportunity to interact with teenagers at the Center for Young Professionals funded by the Swiss banking industry, where they spend several days a week acquiring basic technical skills, before taking on responsibilities at their workplaces. Learning from this model, we have galvanised our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHL) to increase their focus on "learning by doing" through various work-learn modalities. We have introduced our version of apprenticeships in the form of SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programmes, where fresh ITE and polytechnic graduates are matched with a job related to their field of study, and undergo structured on-the-job training at their company. We recently expanded this concept into the universities, through SkillsFuture Work-Study Degree Programmes that are co-developed with partner companies.

Second, the strong culture of employer ownership of training. This is essential in ensuring that the skills and knowledge gained are industry-relevant. Renowned watch-maker Swatch runs an apprenticeship for aspiring craftsmen beyond its own training needs - it employs only about 75 per cent of the trainees upon graduation while the remaining 25 per cent easily find employment with other companies in the industry. One of the leading VET partners for the mechanical and electrical engineering industries, LIBS, provides high-end training at the cost of approximately S$140,000 per trainee. Yet, the bulk of its funding comes from the employer community, a testament to the value of the one-stop services it provides in training apprentices, mentors and employees. I hope that we will be able to instil a similarly progressive mindset in Singapore, where companies look beyond their specific and narrow needs to collectively address manpower development at the sectoral level.

As the SkillsFuture movement gains momentum, I hope industries will recognise their shared responsibility with the education system in building a skilled workforce comprising masters from diverse fields. I encourage companies to establish deep partnerships with our IHLs, to promote lifelong learning, and make training and upgrading accessible to everyone. Through these efforts, we will be able to build up a highly skilled workforce that is competitive, productive, resilient and have a strong sense of self-fulfilment.

On this joyous occasion of 50 years of diplomatic ties between Switzerland and Singapore, it is my wish that both nations continue our strong partnerships in improving the lives of our people. And true to the spirit of SkillsFuture, let us never cease to learn from each other, as we set our sights on the next 50 years ahead.