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Commentary: What AI's rise means for the 'who, why, what and how of reskilling' in Singapore

At the launch of the SkillsFuture Festival on July 4, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said that Singapore’s SkillsFuture movement would shift to a higher gear, to help the workforce retool in scale and speed.

With the advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), there is urgency to equip workers with new skills that will enable them to stay relevant and contribute meaningfully in the workforce, says the author.

With the advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), there is urgency to equip workers with new skills that will enable them to stay relevant and contribute meaningfully in the workforce, says the author.

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At the launch of the SkillsFuture Festival on July 4, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said that Singapore’s SkillsFuture movement would shift to a higher gear, to help the workforce retool in scale and speed.

This is timely given that we are on the cusp of a technological revolution.

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) will transform jobs at scale.

While automation has already replaced many manual processes, AI has the potential to take over professional and even creative tasks ranging from writing to programming.

There is urgency, therefore, to equip workers with new skills that will enable them to stay relevant and contribute meaningfully in the workforce.

Some, however, may question whether this is even a realistic goal in the face of potentially massive job displacement induced by AI. Should the focus be on social support and redistribution rather than employability?

The rise of AI is also putting SkillsFuture in the spotlight: What should the movement aim to achieve and what does success look like?

As I see it, employability is certainly not a lost cause.

Jobs will still be the principal source of livelihood for the next generation, but continuous retraining will become the new norm. Even with employability as the overarching goal, training objectives will vary across workers.

For the national SkillsFuture movement, broad statistics such as training numbers and job placement rates only tell part of the story; more granular metrics are also needed to evaluate programmes and inform the reskilling approach.


Notwithstanding predictions of large-scale job losses, the history of innovation suggests that new technology creates at least as many new jobs as it destroys.

In the long term, technological advances do not reduce the aggregate demand for manpower or work hours.

However, new technology will create winners and losers as it transforms jobs and eliminates others. Those with skills to complement AI could see an increase in productivity and enjoy higher wages, whereas those lacking in such skills could be displaced into lower-paid employment.

Singapore’s social compact continues to be premised on the principle of “reward for work; work for reward”.

The expectation remains that citizens will provide for themselves and their families via employment income and savings. Their housing, healthcare and retirement needs will be met principally by Central Provident Fund contributions set aside from work income.

While the Government is stepping up collective support in the form of social transfers and risk pooling, as well as strengthening social safeguards, there is unlikely to be a fundamental change in the social compact.

As long as job opportunities are available, citizens are expected to work for a living. Singapore’s ageing population and slowing workforce growth suggest that the labour market will continue to be tight in the long term, barring cyclical downturns triggered by external shocks.    

In this context, it is imperative that Singapore continues to create good jobs amid intense global competition. What is different from the past is the pace of technological change.

Jobs and skills are transforming so quickly now that remaining in the same job and firm throughout one’s working years will be the exception rather than the norm.

Young Singaporeans have to be prepared for multiple job and career switches, along with the retraining that is needed to take on new job roles.


What types of training are needed, and how can the SkillsFuture movement better support workers and employers to meet these needs?

It is, in fact, necessary for SkillsFuture to address a wide spectrum of training objectives.  

There is considerable variance in workers’ needs depending on their industry, job role, skill sets and career aims. For some, it is about increasing their productivity and effectiveness at work.

For instance, teachers may consider how to better deploy technology and AI to enhance pedagogical efficacy.

For others, it is about acquiring skills to take on transformed job roles within the same organisation, like bank tellers picking up skills in customer service and sales as routine work is increasingly automated.

Yet others will seek to retrain for entirely different sectors and occupations, while some will seek to acquire additional skill sets (second skilling) with a view to future career moves, to supplement their income or to enhance employment resilience. 


SkillsFuture must therefore address the who, why, what and how of reskilling.

Who needs reskilling? The answer is everyone, but needs differ.

Minister Chan identified mature workers in their 40s and 50s as a group requiring particular attention, given their higher risk of skills obsolescence and retrenchment.

Among employers, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are also in focus given their relative lack of resources and time to invest in training.

Why should firms and workers invest in training? For many, the answer is obvious.

The challenge for the SkillsFuture movement is to motivate those who may be less aware or inclined towards training to invest the time and resources in doing so, given that all industries, firms and workers, to a greater or lesser extent, will be affected by technological change sooner or later.

Here, research can play a part in unpacking the psychosocial aspects of training motivation, to devise more effective approaches to reach out to employers and workers, especially SMEs and mature workers.

What types of courses and training should be offered? This will depend on the skills currently in demand, and those that are expected to become increasingly important in future.

While the Government’s economic strategy will shape demand for jobs and skills, it is also important to take in the inputs of industry, technology experts and training providers.

The range of training on offer should span modular, bite-sized courses to more substantive training courses leading to full qualifications.

There must be courses catering to technical skills as well as those that equip workers with broader skill sets such as leadership, self-mastery and interpersonal skills.

How should training be conducted?

This is about andragogy, the art and science of adult education.

Adults may learn differently from children, hence the distinction between andragogy and the more familiar discipline, pedagogy.

The teaching of adults should be informed by research, and ought to cater to different learning styles and preferences. 

Higher education institutions are well-placed to build up expertise in andragogy through both their pre-employment training and continuing education programmes for young adults and mature workers.

As the national centre for excellence in adult education, the Institute of Adult Learning can drive and coordinate these efforts as well as propagate expertise by training adult educators and helping companies develop their own training programmes.

If this can be done well and at scale, it would make our workforce and businesses more competitive and better equipped for the AI era.


Perhaps the most critical question that SkillsFuture must address is what training will do for the individual.

Some workers are understandably reluctant to invest time in training unless they see tangible returns in the form of higher wages or career advancement opportunities.

Where possible, training programmes should be closely intertwined with an organisation’s transformation plans, including business process and job redesign, so that workers can put their new skills to work and be rewarded for it.

On their part, workers should also be cognisant that not all retraining may lead immediately to higher pay. In some instances, retraining is critical to avoid redundancy or to enhance career resilience.

The payoffs to training may not always be measured by higher wages, but could also be reflected in the avoidance of layoffs and redundancy, as well as the possibility of new jobs and higher future earning potential.

In March this year, SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) reported that about 560,000 individuals and 20,000 enterprises participated in SSG-supported programmes in 2022, fewer than in 2021 but higher than in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic.

A survey by SSG found that 97 per cent of about 58,000 trainees indicated that they were able to perform better at work after undergoing SSG-supported training.

While these broad metrics are relevant in tracking the progress of SkillsFuture at the national level, they should be complemented by more granular metrics that assess the effectiveness of programmes vis-à-vis the objectives of participating employers and workers.

These may include how much time workers spend using the skills they have acquired on the job, and whether there are measurable improvements in productivity, work performance and employee satisfaction.

Such measures can in turn inform the design and delivery of training programmes to cater to the diverse needs of firms and workers.

Advances in technology, most notably AI, have made the SkillsFuture even more critical for Singapore’s economic and social well-being than when the movement was launched in 2015.

It is vital that employers, workers and all Singaporeans embrace the culture of lifelong learning, and continue to seek ways to improve the efficacy of retraining in partnership with training providers, academia and policymakers.


Terence Ho is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the author of Governing Well: Reflections on Singapore and Beyond (World Scientific, 2023).

Related topics

reskill upskilling Artificial Intelligence SkillsFuture

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