Most use SkillsFuture credits for work training, but those on ‘leisure’ courses will not be judged: Ong Ye Kung
SINGAPORE — Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Monday (Feb 24) that he will not be prejudging Singaporeans who use SkillsFuture credits for courses that might appear to be leisure-related.
Mr Ong said that more than 90 per cent of the SkillsFuture claims made by Singaporeans for training courses are work-related, as they look to boost their employability and potential under the scheme launched five years ago and topped up in last week’s Budget.
In response to a question about curating SkillsFuture courses such that they are relevant to boosting employability, he said that he would not be too “judgemental” about the courses people pick. There would be people who use their credits for “leisure-based courses”, such as learning flower arrangement or baking, for instance.
“What is (considered as) leisure by me may be a profession to another… What to me may be a language to understand a drama series, may be a work requirement for somebody else. So I don’t want to prejudge,” Mr Ong said.
He was speaking on the sidelines of a tour at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) LearningHub, a social enterprise which conducts training courses.
In his Feb 18 Budget speech, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced a S$500 top-up to the SkillsFuture credits of all Singaporeans aged over 25 years, while mid-career workers aged 40 to 60 will get a further S$500 top-up. The credits expire at the end of 2025. The previous S$500 credit was offered in 2016 with no expiry date.
Noting that the most popular SkillsFuture courses are related to infocomm technology, Mr Ong said: “I do think that among Singaporeans, and working people, there is an inner strong desire to want to do better at their work. In the process of supporting that desire, will there be abuse and some misuse?
"There will be. But we try our best to not, because of this small minority, therefore deny everyone the resources, the ability to take charge of their own careers.”
Mr Chee Hong Tat, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, said that beyond employability, the spirit of SkillsFuture is also in discovering new passions, moving out of one’s comfort zone and finding a different direction in life, noting how retirees have taken part in courses because they want to do something new.
“That is the right spirit that we want to encourage, for all Singaporeans to continue learning and to learn for life,” Mr Chee said.
As of the end of last year, more than 500,000 people had used their first tranche of S$500 SkillsFuture to pick up new skills and develop new interests, with training participation rates rising from 35 per cent in 2015 to 49 per cent last year.
THE NEXT PHASE OF SKILLSFUTURE
One worker who has used SkillsFuture credits is 44-year-old Mrs Pauline Leow. She nearly exhausted her S$500 from the first tranche in order to leave her corporate job in 2016 and strike it out on her own to become a learning facilitator.
She used her credits on an advanced certificate in training and assessment course to pick up instruction skills so that she could develop training courses for sales and marketing professionals and companies. She now teaches effective communications part-time at Republic Polytechnic as an associate lecturer.
The S$1,000 SkillsFuture extra top-up that she qualifies for in this year’s Budget could empower her to take more courses to pursue the next step in her dreams — to take on law courses and to become a pro-bono community lawyer for voluntary welfare organisations.
“I am one of the lucky ones. There was a course that was a nice fit for me to reinvent myself, and this additional top-up this year opens up even more opportunities for me — my first thought was what course should I do next,” Mrs Leow said.
Like many others, she admitted that her interest was piqued by some courses offered, such as baking. Noting that these baking courses were “taster” courses instead of professional ones and were not likely to turn her into a bread master overnight, she chose instead to train in skills that would take her nearer to her career goals.
But Mrs Leow is a minority in the workforce in using the credits at all. The 500,000 or so people tapping their SkillsFuture credit in the first tranche works out to about only 20 per cent of the resident labour force here.
Giving his assessment on how the national movement has fared in helping Singaporeans improve their employability and develop their potential, Mr Ong told reporters that in his view, the SkillsFuture movement is nearly at the halfway point of its objectives.
The next step will be to “achieve synergies with companies’ efforts”, working with business leaders to raise the skills level of workers in their industry and playing the role he describes as “queen bee” companies.
“We started off ‘letting a thousand flowers bloom’, so we have many courses but sometimes that also causes some confusion. An individual may not know where and what to learn,” Mr Ong said, referring to the efforts to help Singaporeans take on courses through the SkillsFuture portal.
Courses offered under SkillsFuture should therefore evolve to offer more variety as well as to be targeted to the needs of workers and companies.
'DO MORE THAN TOPPING-UP CREDITS'
Human resources experts and business consultants told TODAY that simply doling out more SkillsFuture credits alone will not cut it if Singapore wants to adopt a mindset of lifelong learning, and that other actions to enable Singaporeans to take greater ownership of their learning is more critical.
Ms Angela Kuek, director of recruitment firm the Meyer Consulting Group, said that the top-ups would make little impression on those who have not already used their credits, such as those who are employed and see no value in picking up a course, as well as more mature workers who are unemployed and are more interested in finding a job than going for classes.
The reality for the latter group is that job experience is still valued by employers more than a certificate from a SkillsFuture course, she said.
“Having a finite timeline for Singaporeans to use their SkillsFuture top-ups may give some Singaporeans a push… but for many people, it is a mindset change that is needed for them to understand why lifelong learning is important, Ms Kuek said.
Mr Alvin Ang, founder of recruitment firm Quantum Leap Career Consultancy, said that although 20 per cent of the resident labour force benefitting from SkillsFuture credits is “not too bad”, more needs to be done to win the remaining 80 per cent over on the idea of lifelong learning.
“When a person is comfortable with their job, they won’t go out of their way and learn something new. People will try to learn things only if it interests them, if it is obviously useful to their work and lives, or it is free.”
Ms Linda Teo, country manager of ManpowerGroup Singapore, said that for SkillsFuture to have a direct impact on workers, there must be a focus on aligning the learning needs of workers and the manpower goals of their employers.
“While employees have the liberty to use their SkillsFuture credits as they wish, employers can play a consultative role in advising them on the types of courses they can take to be more efficient and effective at work. This is a missed opportunity as employers are not doing enough to help their employees identify courses that will have a direct impact on their work, and eventually, their career,” Ms Teo said.
Mr David Leong, managing director of People Worldwide Consulting, said that SkillsFuture should aim for courses to lead to certification with issuance of diploma, or as additional credits to help the person attain a degree.
When it comes to courses that some may see as indulgent, such as Korean language classes so that learners may watch Korean dramas, experts said that this should not be seen as a misuse of SkillsFuture even if it does not immediately add to the person's career path.
Mr Leong added that having these courses helps the Government to drive home the message that SkillsFuture is about spurring a behavioural change among Singaporeans in learning and upskilling in adulthood.
Ms Kuek said that there is value to having these courses, since it is about learning something new, noting that a hobby can later become a career.
“After all, even if it is sewing or learning how to cook, if the S$500 allows someone who would otherwise be unemployed, such as housewives, to be learning something useful that could eventually be something they can make money from in future, that is a plus. I don’t see it as a misuse of SkillsFuture,” Ms Kuek said.