On 21 October 2022, a conference organised by Singapore’s labour confederation of trade unions, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), sought to reimagine the future of the nation’s labour movement. The Labour Conference gathered government leaders, academics, union leaders and practitioners in a series of dialogues surrounding workforce transformation.

The themes of the sessions were curated in line with NTUC’s newly-launched Singapore Labour Journal, a first-of-its-kind journal in Southeast Asia that aims to drive future workforce policy recommendations through peer-reviewed and practitioner-based research.

In the inaugural edition of the Journal, three salient topics were identified: addressing the future needs of young workers, supporting continuing education and training (CET), and mobilising workers through digital means in light of the digital age.

“The launch of the Singapore Labour Journal… is another example of how NTUC connects the Head, Hands, and Heart – working with academics with a cognitive take on labour issues (the Head), our unions working on the ground to operationalise policies and listen to workers’ feedback (the Hand), all done by passionate union leaders and academics who are [invested] in our workforce and labour issues (the Heart),” said Ng Chee Meng, Secretary-General of NTUC at the panel’s keynote address.

GovInsider spoke to union leaders from NTUC to break down the key findings and takeaways from the Labour Journal and Labour Conference.

Supporting the aspirations of the youth

A 2022 study conducted by NTUC and the Singapore University of Technology and Design found that only 4 out of every 100 youths intend to remain in their current jobs and positions.

“Rather than frowning upon this behaviour as being less loyal to one’s organisation, we have to understand that the youth job-hop in the hopes of attaining better wages and career mobility,” wrote Wendy Tan, Head of the Youth Development Unit at NTUC in one of the nine papers featured in the Labour Journal, Supporting youth to realise their aspirations and address their needs. 

“From my interactions with youths on the ground, youths today actually look into companies’ values and missions, and investigate how much it actually relates to their sense of purpose.

Youths today are willing to take a pay cut to work for a company they believe in. They are also willing to take a pay cut for better work-life balance and other job perks, as opposed to pure salary increases, CNBC previously reported. “Speaking in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this generation is headed higher towards the pinnacle than any other generation before them,” Tan says.

Such a phenomenon may have been exacerbated by other factors arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. In an annual survey conducted by Young NTUC on 1,000 respondents, two in five cited work stressors including “poor work-life balance”, “long working hours”, “heavy workload”, and “blurred lines between work and personal life”. Youths’ perceived mental wellbeing has also decreased since the pandemic, according to another survey conducted by the National Youth Council.

To address these issues, Young NTUC launched a Youth Taskforce to engage 10,0000 youths aged 18 to 25 years old, as well as a Youth Career Network and a peer support programme. These programmes have the common goal of engaging youths more deeply in quality conversations, providing them with career support, and advocating for the de-stigmatisation of mental health.

However, in the Power to participate: Building young voices, choices and experiences paper, it was found that many youths perceive unions as a “haven of last resort”, only to be engaged with in times of crisis or need. The study found that this perception that youths have of unions poses a limiting factor on the potential impact that NTUC’s programmes can have on its target audience.

To counter this, the study recommended lifetime career and mentorship programmes that extend beyond tertiary institutions, a migration to online methods of engagement, and organic opportunities for youths to discover their desired career pathways. This refers to hands-on, bite-sized, fun-focused experiences that serve as “microcosms of their training experience”, which might ultimately lead to something that drives their career and purpose in life, says Tan.

“It matters to the youth of today that their choices are not limited by peoples’ expectations of them,” she adds.

At GovInsider’s recent panel Developing the new generation of public servants, Professor Ang Hak Seng, former deputy secretary of the Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth, echoed a similar sentiment when he emphasised that the youth of today exhibit a different brand of loyalty. This is a loyalty toward the causes they believe in, which they often put above that toward their organisations. Therefore, increasingly, companies need to align the values of their organisations alongside those of their employees.

Continuing education and training for older workers

But as the nation transitions into healthy longevity models as an ageing country, NTUC seeks to ensure that the needs of older professionals, managers, and executives (PMEs) are not neglected, whilst catering to the needs of the young.

“From our research, we have found that mature PMEs are the most vulnerable group of workers. Those of this age group may find it particularly difficult to rejoin the workforce when they lose their jobs,” Patrick Tay, Assistant Secretary-General of NTUC tells GovInsider.

According to Tay, older workers are self-aware of the increasing digital and technological disruptions that confront them today, as well as the shortening half-life of skills. “However, when it comes to taking action, the proportion of older workers who actually roll up their sleeves to pick up new skills drops dramatically. That’s the challenge that we would like to address,” he says.

Additionally, the Continuing education and training: Looking through the lens of business leaders in Singapore paper found that the very workers that possess gaps in skill sets are not the top priority group of workers that employers select to be sent for training, resulting in inequality in access to training for workers.

In response, NTUC proposed nine policy recommendations last year in a bid to enhance workplace fairness, provide unemployment support, and ensure opportunities for mature PMEs. These include developing structured jobs and skills plans for PMEs, fast-tracking upskilling programmes, and strengthening the enforcement on errant companies that adopt unfair practices, among many others.

Seven of these nine recommendations have since been implemented by government agencies, and workers can look forward to further recommendations in the near future, says Tay.

“Both employees and employers may not be sure of what skills are in demand, or where there are opportunities for job growth. There is quite a bit of information asymmetry, and we hope to strengthen this piece by working alongside employers at the company level, through our company training committees and more than 1,500 of our unionised companies,” Tay adds.

These company training committees have helped companies hasten their transformation to keep pace with disruptions like the pandemic through a virtually available operation and technology roadmap designed by NTUC.

A continued effort

This journal will not just be a one-off endeavour, says Tay. It will be an annual publication amplifying the voices of government agencies, industry practitioners, and academics who will help to prioritise pressing workforce issues.

These include reinventing unionisation for the digital age, and mobilising workers using digital means. “We are also working closely with government agencies such as Skillsfuture SG, Workforce Singapore, and the Institute for Adult Learning to look into workforce issues at a deeper level,” says Tay.

Tay calls out those in the community who are passionate about labour issues to come forward and contribute to future editions of the journal – be they academics, government leaders, tripartite leaders, or industry practitioners.

Additional reporting by Yogesh Hidaramani.