It may be time to make adult education mandatory

It may be time to make adult education mandatory
Since last year, the SkillsFuture programme gives Singaporeans S$500 to take any of about 18,000 courses. TODAY file photo
Published: 4:00 AM, February 2, 2017
Updated: 7:20 AM, February 2, 2017

When the Government gives money away, you would think individuals and companies alike would jump at the chance to get something for free. Such is not always the case.

The SkillsFuture programme, introduced last year, gives Singaporeans S$500 to take any of about 18,000 courses. Yet 94 per cent of the two million people eligible did not use their credits in 2016. Whether it is because they were not fully aware of the courses, or because SkillsFuture credits do not expire, or something else, most Singaporeans saw no urgency in using them.

Employers, as well, seem reluctant to use Government money. The Ministry of Manpower (MoM) said in November that less than 1 per cent of SMEs here, about 1,400 out of about 188,000, used the Lean Enterprise Development Scheme to reskill workers or redesign jobs.

Of perhaps greater concern, there could also be apathy among workers to make any changes, or a reluctance by companies to devote more resources to training amid an uncertain economic outlook.

Overall, data from MoM showed that less than half of resident workers attended any training last year.

Despite the low utilisation of some Government schemes, there continue to be calls by Members of Parliament and companies for the Government to spend more to address the jobs-skills mismatch.

Perhaps what is more critical now is to figure out how to motivate employees and employers to use available schemes and actually ensure workers have the skills they need to prepare for a rapidly-changing economic landscape.

How can we do this?

One innovative yet radical option to upskill more people could be to take a path similar to one taken by Denmark, which is considering a plan to mandate adult education. “The fact that children and young people need to be educated, and that society has a responsibility for this, has not been controversial for over 100 years,” said Mr Poul Nielson, the Danish lawmaker who proposed the idea.

“The Nordic governments should commit to the principle of introducing mandatory adult and continuing training. Something of this type can lift the Nordic countries into a winning position in the global competition.”

A similar initiative in Singapore could start with a requirement for a small number of hours of training initially, then build up over time.

An alternative could be to mandate that every company implement a career development path for each employee that includes training and upskilling. Training for HR staff and senior managers could focus on helping them understand the skills their staff will actually need. Regular and required reporting by companies could ensure that workers get the new skills they need to sustain their career – and the company - for the longer term.

Neither initiative would necessarily require huge investments by companies. As consulting giant Deloitte observed, “advances in technology are disrupting corporate learning. This year, the big change is a shift beyond internal programmes aimed at developing people to innovative platforms that enable people to develop themselves.”

While the concept of requiring training might seem radical, it’s already done for some types of work. Lawyers, financial advisors and accountants, for example, have mandatory annual training requirements. Given the rapid pace of upcoming automation and changes in so many other sectors, extending the practice to all workers would not be inappropriate.

It’s clear that staff are going to need to re-skill and up-skill throughout their careers so they and their companies can succeed. The Centre for Strategic Futures found in its study on the future of work that more than one-third of the jobs held by Singapore citizens are at risk of automation within five to 20 years. While lower-skilled jobs face the greatest risk, it said higher-skilled jobs may also be at risk. Accountants will need to re-skill, for example, to be able to use data analytics to discern insights.

Consulting firm McKinsey similarly found that about half of all the work people do today could potentially be automated, including middle-skill and high-skill jobs.

Indeed, as DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam observed last year: “Technologies are changing jobs more rapidly, changing in ways where more jobs are disappearing completely, and sometimes whole industries are disappearing.”

Only by gaining new skills and learning how to use new technologies can employees make sure they remain relevant.

To do so, a shift in mindsets is also necessary.

Low Peck Kem, Chief HR Officer in the Public Service Division, has rightly warned that the traditional notion of a three-stage professional life where we ‘front-load’ our knowledge and skills in the first 20 years of our life, work for another 40 years and spend our last 20 years in retirement is “is increasingly under strain”.

“We actively learn, retrain and reinvent ourselves to stay current,” she added.

If employees and employers are not taking the initiative to do so, perhaps policymakers should compel them to get the skills they need before their jobs are automated away.



Richard Hartung is a financial services consultant who has lived in Singapore since 1992.