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The current state of skills-upgrading in Singapore

The adult education sector in Singapore is somewhat of an enigma - the workforce is highly trained and yet when asked about learning, most Singaporeans don't think too much of upskilling. It seems like it is somebody else's problem, not theirs. However, the reality is that there is significant transformation in the economic landscape. New sectors such as artificial intelligence and automation are mushrooming. There are insufficient skilled workers in those industries. On the other hand, sectors such as retail are facing competition from online stores and are slowly reducing headcount. Going forward, whether there is a need to shift the workforce from high touch, low tech to low touch, high tech is still unclear but what is clear is that the government is not taking chances. Massive upgrading efforts by Skillsfuture Singapore, a statutory board in the Ministry of Education to transform the workforce has been ongoing for the past few years. The focus has been to imbue adults with lifelong learning mentality.

Case in Point

Aaron, a hardcore Udemy learner, has bought more than 20 online courses for his learning and professional development over the past 2 years and he is not the only one. It is not uncommon to see serial learners to buy 5 to 10 online courses at a go. They accumulate the courses for their future learning. More importantly, they find the courses useful to improve their work performance.

While Pre-Employment Training (PET) in Singapore has evolved over the decades with somewhat distinct phases due to the onset of national policies, Continuing Education and Training (CET) is more of a slow cook. The impetus to upskill for most Singaporeans comes only when one loses his or her job or wants to move into a new role. In Singapore, due to the tight manpower regulation, the jobs and skill base balance is relatively well maintained and monitored. This also means that, at the individual level, adult learners may not see the need to upgrade. There is the expectation of jobs waiting for workers, as long as one is not fussy. However, this is changing quite rapidly especially in the past few years. Some PMEs cannot seem to find jobs for more than 6 months even though they are highly skilled. Essentially, their specialised skills have become obsolete. Hence, reskilling workers to take on new jobs has become urgent, in the light of AI and automation.

While it is still early days for intelligent machines to take over jobs performed by humans, there is no doubt its impact will be keenly felt in the years to come. How will the workforce make way for these machines? What will humans do as work? Can our educational institutions step up to the challenge to equip our workforce with the relevant skills for the age of artificial intelligence? How will online providers such as Udemy plug potential gaps?

There are no easy answers but it is clear that there is a lot of hard work needed to prepare our workforce for tomorrow and it starts today.


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