We ask experts the one skill that spanned their careers

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Panellists at Innovation Labs World weighed in on career changes, mindset shifts, and the elasticity of job roles.

“Effective communication” is the one skill that has stood the test of time for Professor Lim Sun Sun, Head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

“As a professor, when I'm teaching my classroom and trying to create an aha moment for my students, communication was critical,” Lim said at the recent Innovation Labs World summit hosted by GovInsider. Later, when she moved into senior management, what helped was the ability to “persuade others to position strengths as well as being able to address points of resistance that people have”.

Skills was top of the agenda for a panel of experts across government, private sector, and academia, held in partnership with Prudential Singapore. They shared with the audience the challenges and opportunities that Singapore faces in preparing its workforce.

'All hands on deck' for upskilling

Lim pointed out that academics too will benefit from communication skills that help them to translate and explain their research to society, so that it may “parlay its way into policy and public education initiatives”.

Government, private sector and academia must partner to ensure that Singaporeans have the skills needed for the future economy, she noted. “It's a situation where it's all hands on deck.”

Lim’s research delves into the impact of Artificial Intelligence and automation on jobs in industries such as finance and manufacturing. Her team intends to provide actionable recommendations for public policy-making and organisations to enhance the resilience of workers, and is supported by a $2.1 million Social Science Research Council grant, she said. “They can put in place support structures to help upskill their workers, as well as also reinvent the kinds of jobs that they are going to put into the market,” explained Lim, who was appointed a Nominated Member of Parliament last month.

Meanwhile, for panellist Patrice Choong, Director of the Sandbox, Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s innovation and entrepreneurship unit, his key skill was adaptability.

“When I was a research engineer, I spent my whole life reading, writing research papers. My tool was the marker and pen. Then I went to become an academic then into policy,” he remarked. “I had to keep on re-learning new things, and initially it can be quite intimidating. But [it helps to] have the guts and also to be positive about it, that you can pick up the skills.”

Mindset shift

This notion of upskilling is not entirely new to these times, and workforce development has been a focus for Singapore for decades now. The Workforce Development Agency (now Workforce Singapore) first launched in the post-financial crisis years to boost employability of Singaporeans and advocate for continuing education. But, as panellist Michael Fung pointed out, the pace of technological change today has made it all the more pressing to focus on this aspect.

“Haven't we been doing reskilling and workforce development all these years? What's the big fuss? The big fuss is this: the mindset shift,” noted Fung, who is Group Director (Training Partners Group), Chief Human Resource Officer, and Chief Data Officer of SkillsFuture Singapore. “Because those of us who are thinking about disruptions and what are the new skills we need to pick up, we will make those shifts very, very soon.”

Fung went on to say that those most in danger of upheaval are “individuals that think they have the skills and are comfortable where they are right now”. “You can be a very skilled taxi driver for 20, 30 years, and autonomous vehicles come - you have no other skills, you are not entirely sure what other jobs you can take up.”

Companies do have a big role to play here, as the ones that keep their workers in their current job roles “without much upskilling” will realise that it is an unsustainable approach to disruption, he added. However, he pointed out, “transforming the mindset is very difficult”, particularly within large organisations. At policy level, though, Singapore’s SkillsFuture movement is one answer to the question, he said.

A team effort

Local academic institutions have also come on board the skills transformation movement. “Last time, there was a gap between the learning years of your life, which is school years, and working years of your life. Today, you can see that as part of the whole effort of upskilling, these two are merging and overlapping,” remarked NP’s Choong.

The school is running the Poly FinTech 100 programme, a partnership between five local polytechnics and the Monetary Authority of Singapore as part of efforts to nurture a pool of skilled manpower to further develop Singapore’s financial industry. 150 mentors from industry mentor polytechnic students while they are in school, bringing industry closer to education, Choong said.

“We also do the reverse, bringing learning to the industry - a lot of the schemes that are on SkillsFuture are work-learn programmes, on bringing learning into work,” he continued. “Hopefully more and more people will not see it as two different separate and distinct episodes of their lives, but instead one long continuous journey of learning, upskilling.”

In line with this mindset shift, it is inevitable today for professionals to undergo several career changes, said SkillsFuture’s Fung - as many as six over a 30-year career. Professor Danny Quah, the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, agreed with this, adding that he was once a programmer himself. “I'm completely with the programme in terms of how much we need to reorient our traditional thinking - the idea that we train people and by the time you graduate, 22 or 24, they go out and spend the next 50 years of their lives just doing one thing,” Quah remarked.
“You have the same job title, but part of your role shifts and then from there, it's really whatever opportunities that come up.”
Magdalene Loh, moderator of the panel and Head of Government Relations at Prudential Singapore, echoed Quah’s sentiments with an anecdote of her own: how her company chief executive asked her to draw on her project management skills to spearhead a tech-driven project. He said, “While this may be a new area for you, you have a certain skillset that could be put to use. Start from a clear slate and look at it with a fresh pair of eyes,” she explained.

Loh continued, “I may hold the same job, but I also need to be versatile, and ready to upskill and reskill to seize the opportunities that come my way. This is an important mindset to have in this digital economy.”

From communication to career shifts and weaving learning into work, there are quite a few factors at play here. The end goal is that people can lead meaningful careers throughout their lives, despite the challenges that may come.

Read more coverage of Innovation Labs World 2018 here.