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Singaporeans must learn to work alongside robots

AS a leading digital hub, Singapore has embraced faster than most the idea that automation increases efficiency, results in fewer mistakes and a more optimised workforce, and helps the country achieve its Smart Nation goals. Despite this, there is still some resistance among those whose jobs could be impacted by the rise of automation.

According to a recent report by the Institute of Banking and Finance and the Monetary Authority of Singapore, in the next three to five years, one-third of job roles in Singapore's finance industry will be merged or changed due to automation.

Such headlines reinforce the fact that hire-and-fire approaches are no longer the answer, and that a superior strategy is now needed to continually train, upskill and transform the workforce.

A global McKinsey survey highlighted that executives increasingly see investing in retraining and upskilling existing workers as an urgent business priority. Nearly two-thirds said addressing workforce skills gaps as a result of automation was a top-ten priority. That is positive but, for Singapore, it doesn't go far enough.

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The way that we train, upskill and transform our workforce matters. While in some instances, it may be necessary for Singapore employees to learn entirely new skills, this will be the exception rather than the rule. Rather, one skill that is rarely mentioned but which needs to be learnt is how to work alongside robots.

In Singapore, automation is unlikely to replace jobs; rather it will replace tasks. For employees, the ability to understand how software robots operate, identify the processes (the tasks) that they can and cannot automate, and work effectively alongside them, will be key to their own long-term employability.

Employees who understand this and who are able to use robots to their advantage in the workplace will then be able to focus on more value-added work and will no doubt see their career prospects improve.

The challenge for Singapore is a psychological one as much as anything - such as overcoming human resistance to this inevitable shift and trusting the technology. Therefore, we should start early and incorporate these skills in tertiary education or even earlier.

We must involve the education sphere. Educational institutions in Singapore need to start preparing students for the evolving workforce. The impact of automation should be top of mind when reviewing education curricula and they should work with businesses too. The UiPath Academic Alliance, for example, is an initiative whereby Robotic Process Automation modules are incorporated into existing courses.

By inculcating an "Automation First" mindset, we are preparing the emerging workforce for the needs of tomorrow. In the next three years, we hope to teach over a million students how to work with and benefit from automation.


Moreover, students must be encouraged and given opportunities to engage with the business community through internships and placements early in their studies. This will give them a greater sense of appreciation for the rapidly evolving nature of the workforce they are set to enter and witness first-hand how automation is entering parts of it.

Going forward, Singaporeans will have to learn to work alongside robots. This is not so much a question of protecting workers from being replaced by robots, as much as embracing the reality that the two - human and machine - will co-exist to a greater extent than ever before.

My message to workers and business is not to fret - the most recent Future of Jobs report by the World Economic Forum makes clear that automation will create millions of safer, more meaningful and more valuable new jobs. So far, all signs suggest that Singapore is off to a good start in preparing for this shift.

Research firm Forrester summed up nicely the juncture we are at when it concluded in a recent report that most digital and technology leaders remain at the early stages of this movement - one that will be a multi-decade journey. The destination will be a new workforce optimised for human-machine interactions, with Singaporeans working side by side with intelligent machines - or, as we more commonly call them, robots.

The pace at which Singapore's workforce and businesses progress along this journey will depend on the time it takes for this most important realisation to sink in - digital colleagues will be birthed to augment human employees' performance, not eradicate it. From there, we can start in earnest designing human-machine interactions that truly complement the employee journey for the coming decades.

  • The writer is managing director of ASEAN at UiPath