‘The workplace is my classroom’: The key to a future-proof workforce

By Rachel Teng

From forming a lifelong learning alliance to redesigning how working adults receive knowledge when reskilling on the job, Singapore’s institutes for higher learning are making learning outside the classroom the modus operandi.

At the Asia launch of the Global Roadmap for Healthy Longevity in August 2022, Professor John Eu-Li Wong, Co-Chair of the Roadmap’s Commission, said that raising the retirement age to counter the workforce issues of an ageing population would prove to be a very blunt tool. Instead, he proposed the idea of a “Ministry of Older Education” to look after everyone past their traditional schooling ages.

Lifelong learning might give rise to more fulfilling and stimulated lives, Wong proposes. But it also makes for a more competitive workforce, keeping greying countries like Singapore resilient to the increasingly dynamic future of work.

At the SkillsFuture Festival in July 2022, Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing shared in his speech that countries with high-performing adult training systems like Switzerland, Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway have over 60 per cent of working adults learning something new every year.

It seems Singapore might soon catch up, with its formal education sector setting aside resources to build up lifelong learning capacities.

Two years ago, the country’s Institute for Adult Learning (IAL) announced its five-year strategic roadmap that charts its plans to transform Singapore’s training and adult education sector. This initiative gathered many institutes for higher learning, including the NTUC learning hub, SkillsFuture SG, and the nation’s five polytechnics to elevate the quality of continuing education and training (CET).

The IAL is an autonomous institute of the Singapore University of Social Sciences that works closely with businesses, adult education professionals, human resource developers, and policymakers to heighten adult learning pedagogies.

At the IAL’s recent signing ceremony aimed at accelerating workplace transformation, Minister Chan Chun Sing and Professor Lee Wing On, Executive Director of the IAL, shared the steps forward for the healthy evolution of our workforce through a “national lifelong learning agenda”.

Rethinking qualifications

Many enterprises today are no longer as interested in full-time degrees or diploma qualifications, said Chan. Instead, they are increasingly looking at “just-in-time” skill sets that can be applied to their businesses. For enterprises to capitalise on this, Chan said that a few things must change in Singapore’s workforce ecosystem.

Individuals must firstly expose themselves to just-in-time modules, or modules that are stackable towards an eventual degree or diploma. Just-in-time modules refer to courses that give employees the much-needed skills exactly when they need them.

The jobs-skills quarterly insights published by Singapore’s national reskilling movement, SkillsFuture SG in July 2022, revealed that the workforce training participation rate reached a high of 50 per cent amidst the pandemic in 2021. A record number of 660,000 individuals participated in non-traditional upskilling and reskilling programmes.

Professor Lee Wing On, Executive Director of the IAL, believes that this number will only rise in tandem as people begin to resume their daily lives in a post-pandemic world, given the apparent “shortening shelf-life of skills”.

To take this a step further, the IAL has formed a lifelong learning alliance with business enterprises to make learning on the job more accessible, effective, and well-recognised.

For instance, the IAL has partnered with the training arm of hawker conglomerate Fei Siong Group – Fei Siong Institute – to deliver training programmes and courses that help employees improve their productivity in the workplace.

Using digital learning tools, Fei Siong Institute also helps other companies develop customised training programmes for their employees to learn on the job.

An era of informal and bite-sized knowledge acquisition

To actively keep up in an age of digitalisation where ease of access and convenience have become key, Lee believes that the delivery of programmes have to be critically examined.

“...classroom training is neither sufficient, nor the best method to keep learners actively engaged in today’s world,” said Lee, adding that the sharing of tips gained through experience in the field is something that cannot be replicated or found in a training manual or classroom setting.

This goes in line with research showing that the bulk of the knowledge sustaining an organisation is contributed by tacit knowledge. The 70-20-10 model, for example, is a commonly used formula used by training professionals, advocating that individuals obtain 70 per cent of their knowledge from job-related experiences, 20 per cent from their interactions with others, and 10 per cent from formal educational events.

Consequently, the IAL has taken a few key strategies to move beyond classroom delivery. The first of which is reflective practice – a spiral curriculum approach that reinforces previous learning with increased levels of complexity as learners move along. This method is a “signature pedagogy” of many of the IAL’s flagship programmes, according to Lee.

Second, learning should be made bite-sized to engage and allow adult learners to learn more effectively. “It is vital for us to remember that our workforce, who take on dual roles as employees and adult learners, have to juggle between family, social commitments, working, and learning. If one has to commit a large proportion of their time to fulfilling the demands at work, it will be challenging for them to pay further attention to learning,” Lee said.

These bite-sized learning modules can be facilitated by organisations implementing community-of-practice at the workplace. A community of practice is a regular gathering among employees, aimed at creating a safe and regular space for them to share what has or has not worked for them in the workplace.

“This will enable employees to share best practices informally – which has been found to be an effective means to learning, given that 70 to 90 per cent of learning in the workplace is done via informal learning,” Lee added.

Finally, to maintain a “learning loop”, Chan said that partnerships between IHLs and industries will need to evolve, wherein institutes for higher learning no longer develop curriculums in isolation. “The faster and better we close the knowledge loop between frontier industry and academia, the faster we will be able to update our workers’ skillsets in service of our companies,” said Chan.

Editor's Note: This piece has been edited for clarity.