There are three things I would like to cover in my speech. The first part is to talk about the ASPIRE Committee report and recommendations; the second to address students, who are now going to be future employees; and the third for the SMEs.
Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE)
In November of last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appointed me as chairman of a committee to look at applied studies in polytechnics and ITE. The actual steering committee was about 30 members, but there were about 98 people if you took into account the review committees and sub-committees under it. You may wonder why we had such a large committee and the reason for this.
The reason is because we felt that what the ITE and the polytechnics are doing in terms of education is really important. We wanted to make sure that there are opportunities for our ITE and polytechnic graduates. We also wanted to make sure that the needs of the employers are met, because if we do not have a good match, you will have a problem. You will be churning out people who have certain qualifications, but they are not going into the jobs that are needed out there.
Importance of skills
The first thing is that we notice there has been an increasing trend over the years to just chase a paper qualification. I am not saying that qualifications are not good or important, but your qualification must be relevant, and what you take away from that qualification must be able to be applied in a real-life context. A big centerpiece of our report was about skills, and why skills are important. When I say skills, again, there is often a misunderstanding of that term. Many people think it just means doing something with your hands.
Skills is much more than that. It needs:
- Knowledge, which we learn;
- Application, because you have to practise what you have learnt; and
- Experience. Employers have been telling us that they want employees who have skills. They do not just want people with the theory knowledge because it is not what you know, but what you can do with what you know. That is very important.
The second other centerpiece is continual learning. The old model was that when you graduate – whether it is from ITE, polytechnic or university – your education is finished and then you start working life. That was the old model, and it served us and the rest of the world well. It will no longer serve us for one simple reason – the world is changing very quickly and technology is changing jobs. As I said during my parliamentary speech, the way you do your job will change, sometimes the job itself will change, and sometimes the job will no longer exist, at least not in that particular way for that particular industry.
How do we cope with this if you are an employer or if you are an employee? The only way to cope with it is to be able to constantly adapt, change, learn, unlearn and relearn. That is why continual education is important. Another big recommendation of that in the committee report is that we should no longer see education as something that stops when you finish your formal education. It is a continuum – something that will continue right up to the time you retire, and possibly even beyond. It is important to have that mindset because it is only the employers and companies which are able to innovate and stay ahead of change that are the ones that survive and thrive in this kind of environment.
Another aspect of it was thinking about how to make sure that you acquire the kind of skills that you need. We realised that teaching and learning is most effective when it takes place in a real-life environment. That means for the period the students are studying, internships are very important. Internships must be relevant, where you can learn during internships. As such, we are looking at extending the length of internships and looking at the quality of the internships.
There is a period after graduation, where many feel there is something more that they can learn after obtaining the Nitec or Higher Nitec. At the same time, there is some impetus to work. We felt that it is good for both the employers as well as new employees to continue your education while working if you can. Another key recommendation was to look at how you can actually continue your education at the ITE and polytechnics once you start working. That was the idea of the Technical Diploma or the Advanced Diploma. If you are an ITE graduate who has started working and are on this programme, you can come back to ITE to do a course that is relevant to what you are working on at the workplace and at the end of it, graduate with a Technical Diploma.
These are the key ideas but we also realise that it needs a mindset shift. The mindset shift is on the part of employers because if you are going to do internships and the Technical Diploma and Advanced Diploma, it means that employers become part of the education process. We have to design curriculum that is relevant, useful and practical. We cannot do that without the employers’ input. It requires a mindset shift. It is important that we deliver somebody who has great potential, has learnt while at ITE and polytechnics, but their education continues when they are in the hands of their employer.
There also needs to be another mindset shift, on how we view jobs. I think it is a subject of common discussion that for the longest time, people place a value on jobs depending on the paper qualification. But really, there are many different kinds of jobs that are very valuable and much needed. We should respect every job and respect the person doing the job.
If you draw all of these together, people will say these are great recommendations but will ask how we are going to make it work because it is really the implementation that is important. You cannot do it just by having the polytechnics and ITEs doing it alone, or Government doing it alone. It really requires the cooperation of everybody – teachers, parents, students, the Government and employers all working in tandem. For that reason, it was decided that there would be a committee that would look at the implementation and that is the SkillsFuture Council, led by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
There is another piece, the Continuing Education and Training Masterplan, which is headed by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA). We put these two – ASPIRE and the CET Masterplan – together and it is a continuum of education for life and education that prepares you for jobs and helps you to navigate what will be a fairly volatile and uncertain future. The SkillsFuture Council will implement that.
Students and Employers
When we had our engagements during ASPIRE, we spoke to a lot of students and asked them what their aspirations were. Aspirations across the board were not so different. People want good salaries that are commensurate with their skills and qualifications. They also want progression pathways because nobody wants to go into a job and be stuck at that level. Sometimes, that means additional paper qualifications, while sometimes that might mean industry certifications – not so much about taking a diploma or going for a degree but looking at what industry requirements are, and getting something that is industry-specific.
Students also want fulfilment and learn while they are working. If you consider the fact that our SMEs employ 70 per cent of the workforce, then you will understand how important it is for SMEs to be cognisant of the aspirations of the students and what it means for SMEs to be able to help implement the ASPIRE recommendations. I think that as an employer, it is very important to recognise that what is important to your employee is that they learn, grow and are seen as individuals whose talents are to be developed. Employees appreciate employers who develop them. It means sitting down and speaking with them and helping them to identify their strengths, pointing out to them which are the areas in your company where you think they can grow and be promoted to if they apply themselves and work hard. It also means being supportive if they have to take time off for courses – not necessarily during work time, but at least not necessarily having to do overtime, especially if they are doing part-time courses or if they need to do their studies during the weekends. If employers have that kind of mindset, where you see the employee as someone to be developed and trained, and allow that person to bloom, I think employees, most times, are appreciative and will respond positively. What we must try to aim for is that broad consensus where there is a good working relationship between employee and employer and both are working together towards a common goal. For every single individual in your organisation who develops and gets better, your organisation also develops and gets better by that much. At the end of the day, it is really the team that is working together.
SMEs’ role in economy
I have mentioned how important it is for SMEs to be onboard for ASPIRE – and that is because SMEs form a significant pillar of the economy. You play an important role in developing our skilled manpower. Young talent may not prioritise SMEs as a top career choice but that is usually because they are not familiar with what SMEs can offer. The truth is many of our promising local SMEs offer a wealth of opportunities for students to acquire skills and for you to grow in your careers.
We think that SMEs can and will benefit from investing in human capital and building up their talent pipeline. The Government will support SMEs in developing their training capabilities and strengthening their HR practices – and towards building progressive pathways and providing good training programmes to develop their manpower capabilities.
Some of these support measures include SPRING Singapore’s SME Talent Programme (STP). This was launched in 2013 in partnership with participating Trade Associations & Chambers, such as ASME, as well as the various post-secondary education institutions (PSEIs). With the SME Talent Programme, students who are keen to understand more about working in SMEs can embark on a structured internship with an SME. This structured part is very important. One of the constant pieces of feedback that we get from students when they are training is that they find that if it is not structured, and if they are not learning in a progressive way, many of them feel that they do not learn something. As such, it is worthwhile for SMEs to invest in structured training programmes.
Participating SMEs can also provide job opportunities to graduates who are keen on a career with SMEs. Graduates will undergo a one-year structured on-boarding programme delivered by the SME. Students interested in kick-starting their career with the SME can tap on the STP study sponsorship, which covers their remaining years of study (1-2 years) and also allows them to receive a sign-on bonus upon graduation and joining the SME.
Home-Fix D.I.Y., a retailer of home improvement products, is an example of a local SME that has placed talent attraction at the core of its business. It believes in empowering its employees through structured training programmes and development opportunities. Lim Zhi Hao, one of the company’s STP recipients and graduate of ITE College Central, recently attended Home-Fix’s comprehensive orientation programme, which allowed him to quickly pick up useful home improvement knowledge and taught him how to manage and interact with customers. This in-house training programme enabled his work in advising customers and providing them with solutions on their home-improvement needs. Now six months on the job, Zhi Hao is always ready to deliver a great experience to any customer who walks into a Home-Fix store. Home-Fix also offers an Entrepreneurship Incentive Scheme (EIS), a gain-sharing initiative that allows staff to manage a retail store to drive sales and improve profitability.
Another company that believes strongly in building up a good talent pipeline is Hock Seng Marine Engineering, a company that specialises in the design and fabrication of marine grade fittings. A supporter of the STP, Hock Seng Marine has had two successful matches. One of its STP recipients, Sharin Nizam Bin Basilin, joined the company in February this year as a field service technician conducting after-sales site support and technical assistance. Through his work, Sharin has had the opportunity to hone the skills he gained from his Nitec in Mechantronics. Even though he has been with the company for only eight months, Sharin’s supervisors already recognise and appreciate his “can-do” attitude and the high quality work he delivers. In fact, Hock Seng Marine is supporting Sharin’s technical skills training and higher education, with the view of promoting him into a supervisory role or lead technical role in the next two to three years.
In conclusion, building a SkillsFuture would require a concerted effort from all segments of the community – at the individual level, the individual should be responsible for your own learning and development; for employers, you must develop and value employees and their skills; and for educational and training providers to see a role in preparing students for life and upgrading post-graduation. To this end, the Government will work closely with all the various parties involved to advance future skills and to build a future based on advanced skills.
With this, let me wish you all a very good forum and I hope that we will work together and be able to do something really good for Singapore.