How can Singapore address its manpower shortage?

The answer lies in robotics and automation, says Chia Wee Boon, CEO of NCS.

As Singapore faces a manpower crunch, tech can quickly take over. Government is already using artificial intelligence for border security; robotics for drug crime investigations; and machine learning in government audits. This trend is set to accelerate, Chia Wee Boon, CEO of NCS, tells GovInsider. NCS is owned by Singtel, and is a major tech supplier to the public sector. “I am quite certain, regardless of whether it’s the civil service or not, that we could look into every single business process—our own company included—and ask ourselves: ‘Can some of the work that’s being done, at any level, be made robotic’?” Chia says. In an interview with GovInsider, Chia tells more about trends in the government technology space; how agencies can improve their operations; and the tech he is particularly excited about in 2017. The transformation of human resources One key trend he sees is the transformation of the human resources profession, which is traditionally quite labour intensive. For example, robotic process automation - where tech is used to reduce human intervention - can now manage the tedious process of setting up new employees with access cards, mugshots and other administrative details, Chia says. In some cases, Chia adds, his customers experience “about double digit percentage” savings from implementing robotics and automation within their agencies.” A new technology called prescriptive analytics can also be used in security and human resources, according to Chia. Data can advise on staff performance, and make recommendations about the best course of action. Meanwhile psychometric analysis allows human resources professionals to choose the most suitable job for an employee, based off of their background, academic qualifications, and other metrics. “Today, frankly, a large part of the work being done [in human resources] is psychometric analysis,” explains Chia. Third, NCS has recently built a chatbot for its staff that enables them to apply for time off. This cuts out the paperwork, while keeping managers informed and in control. He anticipates greater use of chatbots for administrative tasks across the board. Technologies, old and new This tech becomes increasingly important as Singapore struggles to fill job vacancies. In the second quarter of 2016, there were 6,500 job openings in the public administration and education sectors, and 2,700 job openings in the health and social services sectors, according to the Ministry of Manpower. Cleaners and security guards are in particularly short supply, Chia notes. So are the people that maintain “airports, seaports, sprawling campuses”, for example, he says. Video analytics can help alleviate manpower woes in terms of security, according to Chia. “Why do you need a security guard to keep patrolling the building when you’ve got video analytics and video CCTVs?” he points out. “As technologies, they are already quite mature.” Change of approach As government trials these methods, they are also changing how they build systems. Traditionally, departments would tender for a particular service to be delivered over the course of anywhere from two to five years. Now, they want proof of concept studies to trial multiple options and pick the best one. “Why go into an extensive project—multi million, tens of millions—when you do not know really whether the technology works?” he says. “It’s wiser just to do it on a trial basis before you do extensive deployment.” This higher demand for POCs stems from the accelerated pace at which new digital technologies are emerging and advancing. “with the kind of potential that digital technologies will provide, quite frankly you won’t know. And the failure rate may be quite high. There’s some room for experimentation,” he says. Future priorities As automation becomes more ubiquitous, there’s the danger of low skilled jobs being obsolete with nothing to replace them. Autonomous vehicles, for example, will likely cause a “huge impact” on industries, potentially replacing bus drivers, Chia says. Government needs to reskill these workers as a priority: “Bus drivers no longer drive buses, but could they become mechanics? That’s possible. Could they become bus captains—that means they take care of a specific route? That’s hugely possible,” Chia muses. Reskilling is also a top priority for NCS, says Chia. He wants “to train people like hell” to ensure that the company is well-prepared to exploit the opportunities that new that technologies offer. “I’ve got to train my people,” he exclaims. “I’ve got the consulting, design, implementation capabilities across the board.” As Singapore grapples with a lack of manpower, we will see more and more innovations coming into the fold. Imagine: the workplace of the future will be buzzing with activity, with humans and robots working side by side.