Singapore’s novel approaches to bridging the digital talent gap

By Ming En LiewYeo Zong Hao

With a persistent digital talent shortage, where is the best place to find tech talents? Workforce and education experts suggest looking to those who are not currently in the industry at all.

At GovInsider's webinar on transitioning to a digitally-enabled workforce, experts in the field discussed different approaches to bridging the digital talent gap. 

ASEAN is poised to surpass US$360 billion in internet economy value by 2025. But this rapid expansion will depend on whether governments can solve one central challenge: the digital talent gap.


The shortage of skilled tech labour will reach an estimated 4.3 million workers by 2030 globally. This could cost the United States over US$160 billion and China nearly US$45 billion by the same year, according to management consultancy Korn Ferry’s Future of Work research


“The emergence of digital-first companies and legacy firms looking to transform…have compounded the digital talent gap”, said Srijay Ghosh, Founding Member and Chief Revenue Officer of digital upskilling programme provider Temus. Ghosh was speaking at a webinar organised by GovInsider, titled “A just transition into digitally enabled workforce”


At the webinar, Ghosh joined other workforce and education experts to explore innovative ways to bridge this gap. 


Hiring from unlikely places


“When we think about addressing the digital talent gap, we really have to think differently from what we have done the last few decades,” Ghosh said.


He explained that a majority of today’s digital talents are STEM graduates, but there are only so many degree programmes within STEM and a limited number of positions in these programmes to groom new talent from. This means that the companies are constantly hiring people from the same talent pool. 


To tackle this, Temus is creating new digital talents by training individuals from non-IT backgrounds through its Step IT Up programme. This is an accelerated talent conversion programme that aims to help people from non-STEM backgrounds acquire the technical skill sets to secure a role as a technology professional in Singapore. 


“As opposed to other digital skilling programmes which focus on enhancing proficiencies, Step IT Up recruits individuals from non-STEM backgrounds and provides an opportunity for them to transition into a digital career,” Ghosh explained.


Participants in this programme undergo a vigorous four- to six-month bootcamp where they receive training on digital skills such as Python coding or .NET programming. Next, they will have a year-long on-the-job training stint, where they work alongside their future employer on a client project.


This approach towards nurturing digital talent begins by examining the demand, assessing what is needed in the market and subsequently reverse engineering the curriculum and admissions process to plug the gaps, Ghosh said. 


Since the programme’s launch last year, Ghosh shared that the first batch of participants have already graduated from the programme. 85 per cent of the initial cohort were career switchers who had no background in tech. Upon graduation, many of them have since acquired skills like coding and .NET, and are currently hired in roles like data analysts or business analysts.


Identifying the right candidates


But if businesses are not looking at academic qualifications or prior knowhow to assess talents, how can they select the best candidates for the role? 


Ghosh suggested looking at other means of assessments, such as their levels of motivation or even administering IQ and psychometric tests. 


For instance, he shared that many participants in Temus’ Step IT Up displayed strong motivation to learn, as exemplified by them subscribing to various online coding courses in their own time. 


To better determine this, the Step IT Up team also conducts one-on-one discussions with these prospective participants to better understand their motivations. Additionally, potential participants are invited to join a roundtable session with several other candidates, where they will discuss a topic such as technology use in healthcare. 


“There, you can really see the guys who are passionate about the topic. It’s not so much about their knowledge on tech because you don't expect them to know. But really how they approach the discussion,” Ghosh explained. 


Ultimately, Ghosh highlighted that they seek out candidates who are both analytically strong and motivated to learn. 


Keeping the vulnerable in mind


In discussing the upskilling of non-STEM graduates, it is also important to recognise that digital transformation does not affect everyone equally. 


The elderly and low-skilled workers tend to be particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of digitalisation, said Justina Tan, Associate Vice-President, Strategic Partnership and Engagement at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, during the webinar. 


The elderly may struggle to adapt to digital processes such as mobile payment systems while those in clerical roles often worry about being replaced by automation, she explained. 


“Acknowledging and addressing individual fears is crucial for successful digital transformation. This includes engaging employees in feedback and configuring changes to complement job scopes,” Tan said.


She gave the example of a company that had purchased robots to assist with the cleaning of public spaces. While the cleaners were initially resistant about working alongside these robots for fear of being replaced, the company helped to assuage this fear by engaging in change management practices. 

For instance, they actively engaged with the cleaners and got them to provide feedback on how to configure the robots to best assist them in their work. Management staff also provided support during the transition until they overcame their apprehension. 


“There’s no panacea…we’re dealing with human beings whose fear we need to acknowledge, recognise, as well as address to move things forward,” said Tan. 


Ghosh also highlighted that the Step IT Up programme reaches out to the most vulnerable group affected by this digital divide. While highly skilled workers are generally more receptive to digitalisation, other groups face a lack of access to reskilling opportunities or resources. 


This is why Step IT Up was designed to give everyone a chance to be a part of this digital economy, by selecting potential participants based on their passion and motivation as opposed to demographic factors.

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