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Commentary: Why 'own-account' workers struggle to undergo training, and how a more skilful approach will help

Self-employed persons who include freelancers and independent contractors enjoy the freedom of working without a boss breathing down their necks.

"Our study found that own-account workers face many uncertainties in upskilling, have trouble getting recognition for their upskilling efforts and have very low awareness of the schemes that they can take advantage of," say the authors.

"Our study found that own-account workers face many uncertainties in upskilling, have trouble getting recognition for their upskilling efforts and have very low awareness of the schemes that they can take advantage of," say the authors.

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Self-employed persons who include freelancers and independent contractors enjoy the freedom of working without a boss breathing down their necks.

But with great freedom comes the lack of organisational support for training and career guidance.

Budget 2023 introduced several initiatives such as the Workplace Skills Recognition programme and Jobs-Skills Integrators to close existing gaps between mismatched demand and supply of skills in the current employment landscape.

But the initiatives take a sectoral approach and target employed individuals working in specific sectors and enterprises.

Other existing schemes such as NTUC’s Company Training Committee that involve collaborations with companies on training initiatives target existing employees of companies.

As a result, the needs of self-employed persons who hustle between sectors and enterprises will inevitably be overlooked.

As researchers of a three-phased study on upskilling the digital competencies of own-account workers (self-employed persons who do not employ workers), we believe that the training needs of these workers warrant policy attention and they should not be left behind in Singapore’s efforts to upskill the workforce for the future.

Our study found that own-account workers face many uncertainties in upskilling, have trouble getting recognition for their upskilling efforts and have very low awareness of the schemes that they can take advantage of.


Locally, there are more than 250,000 own-account workers and they make up about 10.5 per cent of the Singapore workforce — with the number of resident own-account workers increasing by more than 25 per cent since 2016, according to the most recent Labour Force report by the Ministry of Manpower.

When we think about own-account workers, platform workers come to mind most readily.

But own-account workers also include those engaged in professional services such as creative and media, sales and marketing, business and administration, and science and engineering professionals.

While some take on own-account work by choice, others do so as a stop-gap measure as they seek to transit back to full-time work. This group includes those who were retrenched and caregivers who want to return to the workforce.

Existing schemes that support the training needs of self-employed persons include programmes that facilitate career transitions to formal employment such as career coaching and job matching services through Workforce Singapore’s Careers Connect and NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) centres.

Through a series of five focus group discussions and 30 interviews from January to April 2022, phase two of our study found that own-account workers experience several pain points due to their mode of employment.

As self-employed persons, own-account workers are bereft of institutional resources that are accessible to employed persons such as training support tailored to individual needs and career aspirations.

While they are aware of the need to upgrade their skills to cope with industry and occupational transformations, their upskilling journey is stunted by paralysis due to a host of uncertainties.

Own-account workers face three uncertainties inhibiting their upskilling — not knowing what skills to learn, how applicable or relevant the skills they choose to learn are, and which courses to enrol in.

The participants in our study felt overwhelmed by the overabundance of options on the MySkillsFuture course portal and struggled to decide on the most suitable course to meet their career needs.


Streamlining training providers could address this issue of supply glut, as suggested during the recent parliamentary debates. On the demand side, helping own-account workers discover their training and development needs would rectify the decision paralysis.

Currently, SkillsFuture, Singapore’s free self-assessment tool, seeks to help one identify suitable career options and makes recommendations based on the user’s personality, skills, confidence and work values.

Incorporating course recommendations based on a worker's existing occupation, career aspirations, and digital skills level will provide own-account workers with the much-needed guidance.

Second, own-account workers face difficulties in gaining recognition for their upskilling efforts from potential employers or clients. Findings from our study indicate that certification from training providers listed on SkillsFuture are also not always recognised by potential clients.

While the new Workplace Skills Recognition Programme enables workers to gain formal recognition at select enterprises while learning on-the-job, own-account workers are left out from this scheme.

It is useful to publish a list of certificates that are recognised by potential employers as it enables own-account workers to make more informed decisions on the courses they choose to invest their time and money in.

A multi-stakeholder collective comprising the Government, employers and training providers can go some way in providing the necessary guidance to own-account workers.

Currently, NTUC’s Freelancers and Self-Employed Unit supports freelancers and self-employed persons by working closely with stakeholders to strengthen this group’s income security, occupational safety and health, and skills mastery.

The initiative covers taxi drivers, private hire drivers, those working in food or package delivery, coaches and instructors in the field of sports and outdoor learning, and professionals in the fitness and wellness, visual and performing arts,  enrichment, and creative fields.

While the initiative seeks to assist these groups of workers, the findings from our study highlight the pressing need to extend the collective approach to a more comprehensive range of own-account workers.

Given that the nature of own-account work, especially among those offering professional services, is being severely affected by technological advances, the collective could look into how best to involve various stakeholders in training and evaluating own-account workers’ digital competencies.

The European Digital Skills Certificate and Europass Digital Credentials Infrastructure currently being developed by the European Union, can provide useful models for this type of collective.

Finally, the last-mile delivery of the plethora of schemes and policies that support own-account workers can be improved.

While being eligible for funding and support from various agencies, out of the existing schemes, participants were only aware of SkillsFuture credits.

There are clearly missed opportunities as existing tripartite support goes beyond this scheme.

Own-account workers have to navigate the chaotic online space and consider the information on multiple platforms such as the SkillsFuture website and MySkillsFuture portal to find out which courses they should take, and which support schemes are available to them.

Despite the availability of information online, the process of sieving through different web pages that may not be relevant can be time-consuming for time-starved workers who lack organisational support.

A one-stop portal that acts as a hub for own-account workers can serve as a path finder.

On top of filtering the information from the MySkillsFuture portal and the SkillsFuture website for own-account workers, such as course listings and government funding opportunities, the portal could include skills requirements for own-account workers, non-government initiatives, a list of client-recognised certifications, and networking opportunities to make it easier for own-account workers to access information relevant to them in one place.

The portal could also make content on industry trends more prominent and point users to a list of recommended courses, certification exams or training providers.

The Digital Skills and Jobs Platform launched by the European Commission in 2021 is an example of such a platform, which offers courses, career advice and job opportunities for European citizens.

While the introduction of initiatives such as the Job-Skills Integrators seek to bring key stakeholders together to facilitate job matching and refresh training programmes, it will only be piloted in the precision engineering, retail and wholesale trade sectors, leaving out large segments of own-account workers.

More can be done to consider the upskilling needs of these workers.


As a transitional mode of work, own-account work offers a valuable opportunity for workers to enhance their skills while earning a subsistence wage as they stage their next steps.

Those who take on own-account work by choice require support to keep their skills relevant and their livelihoods viable while those who do not engage in own-account work by choice would need assistance to transition into their desired careers.

Both types of own-account workers are a quintessential part of a robust and resilient workforce.

As the workforce evolves to include more remote and flexible work, or as workers slowly transition into their desired form of employment, own-account work will likely become a fixture both in our workforce and in a worker’s career lifespan.

By addressing the challenges that this group of workers face, Singapore can build a more resilient and adaptable workforce, allowing them to thrive in the ever-changing economy.


Carol Soon and Chew Han Ei are senior research fellows while Beverly Tan is research assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies. Their research on own-account workers’ digital upskilling needs is funded by SkillsFuture Singapore.

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