How can Singapore build a resilient workforce?

By Yun Xuan Poon

Experts from government, academia and industry gathered at the recent GovInsider-Prudential Future-Ready Workforce Summit.

“We have to be in a state of permanent beta”, Adrian Lim, Director of Digital Literacy and Participation at Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), recently said. The nation is finding many of its industries disrupted, and Lim thinks that society must be ready to constantly adapt and evolve.

According to the World Economic Forum, 65 percent of primary school students today will work in jobs that do not yet exist. In a world that seems to be changing at a frightening pace, it is essential for people to adapt and develop new skills.

Lim was speaking on a panel at the GovInsider-Prudential Future-Ready Workforce Summit earlier this month. It brought together leaders across different sectors in Singapore to discuss how employers can support their workforce in the face of disruption.

Unlearning structure

One of the obstacles Singaporeans face is that they “don’t know how to do unstructured learning”, Lim noted, which is a challenge since the world is “really not that structured now”.

Unstructured learning means that people design their own courses and decide how to build their skills. “In today's context, we tell many people what they have to learn,” said Lim. The focus should be on letting them grasp the basics, so that they can craft their learning experience themselves, he said.

An example of this approach is coding lessons taught in primary schools, he noted. The goal is not to turn all primary school students into programmers, Lim said, but to teach them to appreciate the basics of coding so that interested students can go on to discover more independently. Lim is also heading up a new programme to teach fake news literacy, giving people the basics to navigate a world where the truth is harder to define.

Upskilling at work

“Everything that can be automated will be automated,” warned panellist Abhijit Chavan, Director of Intelligent Automation at PwC South East Asia Consulting. The digital takeover of our workforce is inevitable, he believes.

This does not mean that we are all about to lose our jobs, however. Chavan said that it is vital to excel in our respective fields, because automated alternatives will still require quality manpower to provide direction and set parameters.

Guest-of-Honour Sheela Parakkal, Chief Human Resources Officer at Prudential Singapore, shared how a company can go beyond the usual classroom skills development programmes. In 2017, close to 100 employees successfully switched to new jobs at Prudential, she shared. “They were not 100 percent skilled with the depth of knowledge that we traditionally say someone needs to have to do a job well,” she explained; instead, the company built on their commitment and gave them the time to learn a new role.

Closing the gap at work

As an ageing nation, the generational gap in the workforce is an increasing challenge, IMDA’s Lim said. Prudential’s Parakkal echoed his sentiments, remarking that companies must mitigate an “unconscious bias that all of us have about mature employees”.

Prudential has benefitted from its multi-generational workforce, Parakkal added: “The office environment is pretty much what all of us experience at home”, where mature employees can learn from their younger colleagues, while older colleagues hold great wisdom and experience.

To bridge the gap between generations, Parakkal shared how Prudential is focusing on educating younger workers about “what it is like to grow older” by introducing age sensitisation workshops as part of employee induction programmes. These allow new employees to better appreciate the older workforce and what they have to offer. The important thing is to “look for similarities and not differences”, Parakkal said.

The company recently abolished its retirement age, allowing older workers to remain in the company and continue supporting its growth. By 2050, the United Nations projects that half of Singapore’s population will be over the age of 65.

Can Singapore build a resilient workforce? In its short history, it has already overcome great challenges and continued to prosper. The secret, it seems, is not about having the right skills, but the attitude and aptitude to keep adapting.

Learn more about Prudential’s support for an ageing population in their Ready for 100 Report.