Singapore employers need to hire on skills, beyond degrees, to address the talent gap – HR panel

By Si Ying Thian

While national skills frameworks can help employers transition to a skills-based hiring approach, observers question how such frameworks can keep up with rapidly evolving market demands.

Panelists at the Regional Education Briefly spoke about skills-based hiring as a means to tackle the talent gap in Singapore. From left to right: Zuhui Yap, HR Director with Singtel, Patrice Choong, Chief Data Officer of Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Jan Tan, Assistant Director of Institute for Human Resource Professionals (IHRP), Whee Teck Ong, Partner with EY​​​​​​​ and Zheng Wei Quah, Co-founder and CEO of Accredify. Image: Accredify. 

Despite the talent shortage in Singapore, employers remain resistant to looking beyond education qualifications in their hiring decisions.


From 2017 to 2022, Singapore emerged top among four developed countries when it came to employers’ emphasis on degrees for hiring, according to a 2023 study conducted by Boston Consulting Group (BCG).


There was a 5.3 per cent increase in degree requirements for hiring in Singapore. On the other hand, its counterparts in the US, UK and Australia saw a 1.6 to 3.9 per cent decrease.


Yet for every unemployed person, there are 2.5 job vacancies available, reported the Singapore Institute of Management, a private tertiary education institute, in the BCG report.


The study was cited during a panel discussion titled “Bridging The Gap: Aligning Curricula With A Skills-Based Economy” that took place at the Regional Education Briefing hosted by Accredify, a service provider for issuing verifiable documents, on 6 March.


The speakers were Jan Tan, Assistant Director of Institute for Human Resource Professionals (IHRP); Patrice Choong, Chief Data Officer of Ngee Ann Polytechnic; Whee Teck Ong, Partner with EY; Zuhui Yap, HR Director with Singtel; and moderated by Zheng Wei Quah, Co-founder and CEO of Accredify.

National Skills Framework: Good guide, but how adaptable is it?


Since 2016, the Singapore government has been progressively launching Skills Frameworks for different sectors, and a Skills-Based Hiring Handbook was launched last November to guide employers towards a skills-based hiring approach.

The national skills frameworks levelled the playing field between employers and employees around information to one's employment and related opportunities. Image: Accredify. 

Yap from Singtel likened the skills framework to a career coach, and said that it could democratise information access to one’s employment and the opportunities around it.


“Most people don’t have access to these career coaching resources, so [the framework] properly defines the skills and learning outcomes around the metrics.”


Choong from Ngee Ann Polytechnic shared the same sentiment, acknowledging the framework as a “common language” across different sectors for evaluating skills, while Ong from EY raised the question of how the framework will evolve with the market demands.


Speakers at the panel generally agreed that certain soft skills, such as adaptability, creativity and good communication, can stand the test of time and allow employees to deliver additional value within their organisations.


Notably, Tan from IHRP said that a skills-first approach will not only affect the workforce, but education as well.


IHRP is one of the partners, alongside tech regulator Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), that launched the skills-based hiring handbook.

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Credentials and competence: Not an either-or situation


Beyond only academic results, educators are increasingly moving towards a “whole person assessment,” said Choong.


“University graduates are looking to boost their internship and experiential learning experiences. So, when a person graduates now, he or she brings together skills from academia and experience throughout the four years,” he explained.


Collaboration between employers, adult learning providers and educators is therefore key in driving the ecosystem forward towards a skills-based hiring approach. For Ngee Ann Polytechnic, it means sending students for a one-year internship or industry attachment.


“It is very important for companies to take part in the talent development phase. A long time ago, the company was responsible for developing talent, but today it has to be a joint effort because the industry demands move extremely fast,” said Choong.


As an employer, Yap from Singtel highlighted the importance of skills being verifiable, quantifiable and comparable – where degrees currently serve these aims.


“We need to look away from hiring someone based on the job description, to what they can do to boost the competencies and capabilities of the organisation.”

Tan with IHRP makes the case for employer's investment in staff training for attraction and retention. Image: Accredify.

Yap also cited microcredentials as a means for workers to demonstrate skills. The Australian Financial Review earlier reported about the rise of micro-credentials boosting careers.


As bigger multinationals are increasingly launching their own microcredentials, such as IBM’s MicroBachelors programme in cloud application development, Tan from IHRP spoke about its potential for staff retention.


“Especially the younger generation today, they are looking for growth opportunities. One of the key challenges faced by employers is also talent retention. Being able to invest in your staff is a strong way to retain talent.


“Instead of being afraid that [your employees] will leave after that, invest in them and even if they move on, they will become your clients. I think this is a potential that we’re seeing from companies that have these practices,” she explained.