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Employees should come first in Singapore's new digital economy

SINGAPORE has an exceptional enabling environment for innovation and digital transformation. It is a magnet for innovation centres and a testbed for imaginative people working on some of the most pressing problems faced by governments and businesses.

The country has a laser focus on helping businesses build digital capabilities and improve productivity. Several initiatives have been set up for businesses - large and small - in the public and private sector to not only digitise their processes but also upskill the current workforce.

Taking it one step further, this year's budget includes S$19 billion to improve R&D capabilities, and S$4.6 billion to enhance economic capability-building for businesses and to support Singaporean workers, helping them thrive amid industry and technological disruptions.

Having a supportive regulatory framework and a strong investment environment is only the first step towards embracing digital transformation in the economy.

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Research by Cisco and Oxford Economics found that Singapore's labour market is set to face a large degree of job displacement over the next decade, with almost 21 per cent of the full-time equivalent workforce affected.

Businesses must remain competitive and hence, Singapore's workforce needs to be comfortable working alongside technology and embracing new skills and job opportunities that arise from digital transformation.

Solving digital challenges comes down to mindset of our workforce

Increasingly, the perception that automation will displace workers is permeating across industries. The top three sectors in line for most displacement in Singapore are wholesale & retail, manufacturing and transport. As conventional roles disappear from the labour market, workers must be ready and equipped with the right skills to successfully transition into other industries and occupations. We see this shift currently taking place in the manufacturing industry with significant technological adoptions such as robotics, cloud computing and 3D printing utilised for improved overall business productivity and competitiveness within the region.

The adoption of new technologies has shifted the way manufacturers operate and the current demands of the workforce. While the manufacturing industry has experienced robust growth, the Ministry of Manpower indicated a steady decline in overall jobs in the sector since 2013.

In an increasingly automated sector, there is greater demand for digitally skilled but fewer workers. Across a 10-year period, the Cisco research has found that new job opportunities will offset the effects of job displacement within sectors.

This is a call for a change in mindsets. Employees should not fear losing their jobs during this shift in labour demands but instead recognise the opportunity to adapt their skills, build their talents and forge new career paths. Continuous learning, agility and adaptability need to become the new mantra for businesses and employees alike.

Cultivating an ecosystem which supports digital transformation

Apart from ensuring employees are comfortable and ready to adapt to the digital economy, firm strategies need to be put in place alongside a country's digital transformation plans to reduce negative impacts of job displacement. Businesses, together with the larger ecosystem of government bodies, technology providers and educational institutions must come together to ensure workers are provided with the necessary tools, opportunities and skills for their transition towards the workforce of tomorrow.

Technology providers in particular have a great opportunity in bridging the digital skills gap. At Cisco, we place a big emphasis on equipping professionals and students with the technical and business skills needed in the digital economy. Our Networking Academy has trained more than 850,000 students in Asean over the past 20 years. Additionally, national movements such as SkillsFuture present opportunities for Singaporeans to maximise their potential and strive for greater excellence in a digitally advanced economy.

With all the schemes and programmes made available, companies need to take a step back and assess their current talent pool. They need to anticipate the skills that their future workforce will need to possess and move fast to train and attract the right talent to stay ahead of the curve.

Placing employees at the core of technology adoption

Singapore will continue to see emerging technologies being embedded in the economy, increasing the core capabilities of businesses including productivity, collaboration, and their competitiveness within the workforce.

According to the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), artificial intelligence and cloud-based solutions for all industries alongside 5G phone networks will be officially rolled out in the country by 2020.

As these technologies are widely adopted, some jobs will become automated. This will require employees currently doing those roles to be reskilled so they can take on new roles and continue to add value to the business and the economy. It is critical for business to take a lead on this and address the issue as the workforce will experience a widespread transition into jobs that require more critical thinking, agility and adaptability.

Human talent is at the heart of any digital economy. Harnessed properly, an adequately trained talent pool has the ability to foster growth for decades to come. If neglected, an ill-equipped pool will emerge as one of the top challenges for companies and impact their digital readiness and success. Businesses that fail to place employees at the core of their digital transformation journey will not only struggle to keep up with customer demands and shifting market conditions, they will also threaten to slow down the pace of technology advancement.

That is a risk Singapore can't afford to take.

  • The writer is managing director for Singapore at Cisco.