The Business Times

Bridging the skills gap: Is education the key?

Is education the key to retooling the Singaporean worker of the future?

Published Fri, Oct 23, 2020 · 09:50 PM

AS the hand-wringing and finger-pointing continue amid a deepening recession and rising joblessness, one underlying issue remains. That is the fact that the local talent pool simply cannot meet demand, in both numbers and the technical and soft skills needed in the sectors with the most growth potential. Employers looking to hire more local fresh graduates say they have had more success with those who have received on-the-job (OTJ) training like internships, as real-world experience appears to be a crucial building block for candidates to develop the skills they lack. The trend has got them thinking that more collaboration between industry players and educational institutions to include training in curricula could be the key to raising the employability of the local talent pool.

Skills in short supply

Companies in the technology sector have come under fire for the number of foreigners in their ranks. Employers in this industry say they have to hire foreigners because local candidates tend to fall short in specialised skills, often due to the niche and high-growth nature of their fields, as well as soft skills for effective teamwork and problem-solving. Given their highly specific needs, many have accepted that finding suitable local candidates with the complete skill sets will be difficult, and they now look for individuals who have some of the needed skills and the capability to quickly pick up the rest along the way.

For example, mixed reality solutions provider struggles to find full-stack software developers that can build mixed reality applications for enterprise and educational use cases. Most schools here train students to use the relevant tools for game development, focusing more on the front-end aspects and less on the back-end and architectural skills, says CEO Terence Loo. "I'm resigned to the fact that I will not be able to find someone who can do A to Z of everything. There's no such thing as a full-stack mixed reality developer because this is something we created ourselves," Mr Loo says.

But even though he is prepared to hire and train fresh grads, it's harder to do so in Singapore, where the industry is still new. Mixed reality is more developed in the US, and Mr Loo was speaking with The Business Times from Texas, where most of his developers are based. "If I hire fresh grads with rudimentary skill sets, I don't have the experienced people (in Singapore) to mentor and guide them to evolve their skills. In the US, I could hire people very similar to those I hire out of schools in Singapore, but I have mentors here they can work with and they learn a lot quicker."

Competing demand in the region for certain skill sets is another reason for shortages in a few sectors. The data centre market is poised for exponential growth in the region, notes Jon Curry, vice-president of operations for Digital Realty in Asia-Pacific, and the data centre solutions provider has a hard time finding locals with facilities management skills and experience with data centres. Similarly, e-commerce platform Shopee faces stiff competition for data scientists, data analysts and software engineers from the booming e-commerce industry in South-east Asia. Lim Teck Yong, Shopee's head of regional operations and people team, adds: "The fast-paced nature of the tech industry also causes fresh graduates and mid-career seekers to be more intimidated to join the tech sector, due to lack of confidence in (their) skill sets."

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Shopee has taken to grooming the talent it needs through initiatives like a Company-Led Training programme it set up in early October in partnership with the Infocomm Media Development Authority, and competitions like the National Data Science Challenge where participants gain experience in solving real-world problems.

For companies in finance, another sector criticised for its over-reliance on foreign labour, finding candidates with regional and global perspectives to cater to a wide range of markets is one of the main challenges of hiring locally, say Adera AI and YouTrip, two companies that operate in the financial services space. Their woes also overlap with those of the technology sector as finance moves rapidly into the digital realm, driving demand for fintech capabilities.

Reshaping education

Recognising that graduates need more OTJ training to be employable, Singapore has rolled out a series of work-study programmes through SkillsFuture Singapore and the Ministry of Education since 2015. These are mostly aimed at helping fresh graduates from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnics earn additional qualifications while deepening their skills through real-world experience, while also encouraging polytechnic and junior college students to take up a university degree course with a built-in work programme.

The programmes are broadly patterned after vocational education training (VET) systems like Germany's, which uses a combination of apprenticeships and in-class learning to produce highly skilled and employable workers. Of the four types of work-study programmes currently available, the SkillsFuture Work-Study Degree Programme (WSDeg) gets closest to the German model, in how companies get to co-design the curricula with the universities.

One key difference, however, is the absence of an industry-wide effort that gets entire sectors on board with these programmes. Instead, interested companies approach the universities individually to get involved. This is a gap that Singapore needs to address if it wants the programme to succeed as it has in Germany, says Singaporean-German Chamber of Industry and Commerce advisory council member Alexander Melchers.

"We know in Germany that the companies are the weakest link," he says. "Every company is afraid that if they train someone, the guy leaves them and works for their competitor. We don't have a national consensus here that if everybody trains, it doesn't matter (if the workers leave), because people will be mobile and move from one company to the other."

Mr Melchers cites the example of IT software multinational SAP, which trains IT system engineers under the German VET just like its industry peers. Although SAP may lose 20 engineers to its competitors at the end of the programme, it can easily employ another 20 from competitors' training programmes. "Because everybody does it, and there's a consensus amongst the players that this training in the companies is important, you have a much better skills base," Mr Melchers notes.

The SkillsFuture website lists 39 courses available under the WSDeg, in fields like information and communication technology, business analytics and engineering. They are offered by the National University of Singapore, the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the Singapore Institute of Technology and the Singapore University of Social Sciences. However, only about 350 students have enrolled in the WSDeg as of 2019, according to a parliamentary reply by the Ministry of Education in February this year.

Undergraduates and most employers that BT spoke to were unaware of the programme, and the students said they would have appreciated it as an option when applying to universities.

Ivy Ng, a second-year business marketing student at NTU, says that she would have considered applying for a business analytics course under the WSDeg.

"I feel that it's a win-win situation for students, because they get to complete their degree and gain exposure to the workforce to possibly increase their employability in the future," she notes. "This programme might also allow students to build connections and network with people in the industry, and this might be helpful for their career."

Adds Amber Voo, who is in her third year of a double degree in aerospace engineering and economics at NTU: "If there's an offer for a job attached to it, it seems like a good deal."

Employers welcome the idea of more such work-study programmes, especially if companies get a say in what is taught in the classroom.

Anthony Ong, group CEO of technology services firm Adera AI, says: "Both knowledge and practical working experience are equally important in the fintech environment. Hence, we probably would need to start nurturing the next generation during their tertiary education, where they can obtain hands-on experience in a more immersive real-life working environment."

Toby Koh, group managing director at Ademco Security Group and executive director of blockchain startup Fresh Turf, feels that the fields of study prioritised by academics are not always the most relevant to what's needed in the industry. He hopes for closer collaboration between companies and educators, so they can quickly rejig the syllabus in response to changes in the business environment or new opportunities.

But Mr Loo of cautions that such collaborations won't automatically yield more future-ready graduates. He says: "As much as the education sector is trying to forecast things, even companies like us find that challenging. We may have a bit more of a front-row seat, but it's a day-to-day challenge to figure out what the market is going to be like tomorrow... Things move so fast that as they say, the best way to position for tomorrow is to create tomorrow."

Recent announcements that Singapore's institutes of higher learning (IHLs) are reviewing their curricula in a push for more interdisciplinary learning are promising. Employers expect this will help students be more innovative and better able to meet future challenges.

Says Caecilia Chu, co-founder and CEO of payment services company YouTrip: "(Interdisciplinary education) definitely helps to broaden the skill sets of candidates to have a more holistic perspective when they enter the workforce.

"The world shouldn't be viewed through a single lens, so with a wider understanding of different things come better decision-making skills needed to excel at work."

Vivian Chua, Singapore managing director at HP Inc, says the technology company values interdisciplinary skills, and takes a similar approach in its internal learning and development curriculum. It encourages employees to take up opportunities that may not be directly related to their current roles, so they can pick up new skills and explore other career paths in the organisation.

To tackle local graduates' lack of international experience, Mr Melchers suggests incorporating a compulsory work or study stint in an Asean country into local university programmes.

"If Singaporean students work or study six months abroad, that would really build networks. But foremost, it would build understanding of why these countries are the way they are, and why these countries look at Singapore the way they look at us," he says. "Just that would make the students so much more interesting for companies, because companies need people who can relate to working abroad and have different exposure."

Entrepreneurial employees

Beyond equipping students with the right technical skills, employers want to see the education system evolve to nurture mindsets and abilities that apply in any environment. These include quickness to learn, effective communication skills, critical thinking and an ability to embrace failure in the pursuit of success.

Many of these attributes have been described as part of an "entrepreneurial" mindset, which Deloitte Singapore talent partner Ong Siok Peng says is becoming more important for creating future-ready employees than any specific technical or soft skill set. "We live in a fast-paced, fast-changing world, and while it is crucial to acquire new skills and to refresh old skills, what becomes most important are not the skills themselves but the human capabilities that underlie the ability to learn, apply and effectively adapt them."

She adds: "No longer are we developing talent to perform standard tasks more efficiently than others. What we are looking for now, and into the future, are talent with the capabilities (which form an entrepreneurial mindset) that can adapt, compete and succeed in the ever-changing environment."

Mr Ong of Adera AI hopes that the shift towards interdisciplinary learning in local IHLs will be accompanied by a more holistic approach that embraces failure in the learning process, as this will encourage creativity and combat the stigma of being labelled as a "failure".'s Mr Loo wants a greater emphasis on critical thinking and communication, which would have saved his company significant time and effort in a recent instance.

Faced with a new problem, he had suggested a potential solution to his team of developers, who dutifully executed his instructions. When the idea failed, the developers disclosed that they had seen flaws in it, but had not spoken up because they thought they were supposed to do what their boss wanted.

"It's not about what I want, it's about trying to solve the problem by challenging the status quo," Mr Loo says. "You need to bring in your experience and challenge things from a different angle. I came from the business side, and failed to see the perspective from other angles, and I wish they would have brought their pieces to the solution table."

Mr Koh of Ademco and Fresh Turf wants to see children encouraged to set up "lemonade stand" type businesses in primary school, as they will learn entrepreneurial lessons about resource allocation, business plans and unique value propositions.

"The problem with the term 'entrepreneurship' is that people think it's about business, but it's not. I want the spirit of entrepreneurship because it's so all-encompassing - the ability to use resources, to lobby a person to accept my idea, to communicate well, to understand another person's viewpoint, to know what buttons to press to make something happen," he says. "For lack of a better word, entrepreneurship is life skills, and if we use that as a basic framework for our young generation, then whatever role they are in, it's going to give them a better chance of success."

Job-hunting in a recession

Recruitment consultants offer some tips on how to stand out from the competition

Mark Teoh, executive director of human capital consulting, Deloitte Southeast Asia

We are increasingly seeing that paper certifications and qualifications are no longer sufficient to meet the rapid pace of change. Formal education has reduced importance in the digital world; continuous learning on-the-job and adaptability will have more impact on employability.

The risk pockets in Singapore's local talent pool come from potential structural unemployment for mid-career employees as industries transform around them. The key to addressing this risk - and often the hardest thing to do - is to learn to be adaptable and resilient.

Declan O'Sullivan, CEO, Kerry Consulting

In times like this, I would emphasise resilience, determination and strength of character. If you make statements like "I understand this is going to be a challenge, and I'm going to give it my absolute all" - that's a very good way to get a job.

We are looking for people who are that bit more determined and can demonstrate that they have faced adversity and persevered.

The counterpoint is a sense of entitlement and ill-founded self-belief.

Grant Torrens, regional director for Singapore, Hays

As little as six to eight months ago, it was all about what value could an organisation bring to a candidate's career... A greater supply of candidates on the market will ultimately place the onus on the job seeker to make it very clear to the potential employer the kind of value they could bring to their organisation if their application is successful.

To gain an edge, candidates are advised to think about what their competitive advantage is and focus on weaving examples of this distinction into their CVs. This could include experience working overseas, dealing with senior and/or varied stakeholders, proficiency in a second language or involvement in extracurricular projects that have served to polish their business skills.

Linda Teo, country manager, ManpowerGroup Singapore

Candidates need to differentiate themselves by articulating how their skills and experience can solve the hiring company's pain points or contribute to the company's growth.

In addition, job seekers are also fighting with automation. Although automation can help to complete some tasks, it does not have the capability to creatively solve problems.

Employers are looking for individuals who have proven themselves to solve employers' pain points with out-of-the-box solutions.

Jaya Dass, managing director for Malaysia and Singapore, Randstad

Local candidates tend to have very high expectations on salary and job requirements.

For example, many candidates have yet to align their salary expectations with the current market conditions or be open to trying out contract roles, which would get them one foot in the door and a possibility of converting to become a permanent employee.

Employees also have high expectations on job promotions, with some wanting to be fast-tracked before proving themselves in the job or building their leadership qualities.

For fresh graduates or mid-career applicants, internship or traineeship experiences are very important to hiring managers. It demonstrates that the candidate has some exposure to the industry and knows how the business would operate.


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