Invest in upskilling now, says SkillsFuture Forum panel
Covid-19 pandemic has hastened the pace of change at the workplace, and this underscores the need for firms to plan upskilling programmes right away, even as they embrace ambiguity, industry leaders said on Thursday.
At a panel discussion at the SkillsFuture Month Forum 2021 supported by The Business Times, Minister of State for Education Gan Siow Huang said: “Global trends are instructive – they tell us that there are certain new ways of doing business, new ways of work, new ways of consumption, new technologies that are influencing business models and consumer patterns and behaviours.”
This means companies need to be making plans all the time to look at what and how to train their workforce based on the companies’ strategic goal, she said.
Concurring, fellow panelist Adeline Sim, executive director and chief legal officer at HRnetGroup, said: “The pace of change has picked up so quickly that you cannot wait. If you wait, you’re out of the game.”
She said the market has begun picking up in the past six months, and those that are riding it are on the way up on a “K curve”.
“If you don’t change, you don’t train, you’ll be on the way down. So I would say now, right now – yesterday, actually – would be a good time to do the training.”
One company that has had a headstart with digitalising is Phoon Huat, which had planned ahead of time to deal with a shrinking worker quota. When the pandemic hit, the manufacturer and supplier of ingredients and equipment to the food industry was “more or less 90 per cent ready” to do so – even if it meant being forced to launch its e-commerce site during Singapore’s “circuit-breaker” period in April last year.
James Wong, its executive director, said: “We know that we had to make the investment … We strategised our investment in a way that it was not just to manage with less manpower, but for us to be able to bring our business, our model, to other geographic areas.
“Besides surviving in Singapore, that was the real icing on the cake.”
But the question was how the company was able to take the plunge into e-commerce, even though it was not fully ready.
Mr Wong said this required all hands on deck from a dedicated team who were willing to put in the extra hours to overcome the challenges.
Ms Sim said a crisis is the best time to pull together with the team.
“For many work places, when it comes to times of trouble or crisis, you pull through only if you come through together,” she said, adding that this is true even for fresh graduates, who may feel they are still new to a company.
Such a mindset, rather than specific skills, is what would help fresh graduates to succeed, she added.
The Skills Gap
But one challenge Phoon Huat faced took the form of a skills gap; its employees were required to have skills in multiple domains, said Mr Wong.
For example, while its pastry chefs could explain a product to customers in a brick-and-mortar store, they were unable to write a concise description to market the product online. (Conversely, a good writer may know little about food or baking.)
Having an attractive description to hook online shoppers was thus a challenge, he said.
Picking up on this, Ms Gan, who is also Minister of State for Education, suggested that these pastry chefs join SGUnited Skills programmes supported by SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG). There are classes on e-marketing and retail for them, she added.
She added: “People, perhaps with sales experience in their previous jobs but who want to pivot into technical work can go for SGUnited Skills’ upskilling courses. They will be able to blend their past work experience with their new skills.”
She added that such programmes run by Singapore’s tertiary institutes and training providers are preparing a large group of people with new skills, and that companies like Phoon Huat could start to consider hiring those who are about to graduate, or interviewing those who might be suitable.
Kevin Wo, managing director of Microsoft and another panellist at the discussion, said that job seekers should be ready to deal with ambiguity, especially since the pace of change has quickened in recent years.
“In the terrain that we are working in, sometimes you may not have all the answers upfront.”
Being able to navigate through uncertainty and deal with limited information while keeping one’s “North Star” clearly in view – such agility is a core skill, he added.
At the same time, the workplace should be one that is safe for people to ask questions, take risks and make mistakes.
Mr Wo said: “When people make mistakes, it should be celebrated; they should not be penalised, then they learn faster,” he said, adding that employees should seek answers on their own.
“One of the things we do in Microsoft is to teach our managers how to be more coach-like, and what we mean by that is to not rush into giving advice too quickly.”
Instead, they should ask the right questions to get the team to think so that they can learn better through the thinking process.
Fellow panellist Yee Wee Tang, managing director of Grab Singapore, said he noticed that employees do enjoy a degree of ambiguity.
“What we’ve found is when someone’s given a new project or initiative that’s completely out of their scope, many of them actually enjoy it,” he said.
This works when the workplace has a culture where people are allowed to fail, he said.
“By giving them the opportunity, you actually give them the recognition that ‘Hey, you may not know this, but I think you can do this’. That actually encourages them to take the plunge.”
Mr Yee said this was the case when the company started GrabSupermarket – though nobody in the company was familiar with supermarkets. It paved the way for employees to see the project as a startup and have fun with it, making it a fulfilling project that they could learn from, he said.
Grab has also been offering re-skilling opportunities for its driver-partners, he said.
Apart from on-the-job training, some employees also take “second skilling” courses that prepare them for a second job (as a barista, personal trainer or cook, for example), when there is downtime.
Some of these courses are not cheap, but subsidies are available through partnerships with SSG and other like-minded organisations, he added.
Win-Win For Companies
In her earlier speech, Ms Gan noted that companies that support their employees’ training through SSG recorded rises in their revenue and labour productivity.
She was citing the findings of a study by the Ministry of Trade and Industry and SSG on the returns to companies that sponsored their local workers for SSG-supported training between 2010 and 2018.
The study found that for every 10 per cent of the local workforce that companies supported for training, the company’s revenue was about 0.7 per cent higher on average each year for up to three years after training.
The labour productivity of firms was also 2.2 per cent higher on average per year for two years.
“Clearly, it is a win-win proposition for companies to invest in developing their employees,” she said, adding that the study provides evidence that investment in workforce training leads to positive business outcomes.
As at March 31 this year, about 650 companies had implemented workplace learning programmes and trained 3,700 employees under SSG’s National Centre of Excellence initiative, she said.
This year, more than 90 community, education and industry partners are participating in SkillsFuture Month 2021, which is expected to reach out to more than 50,000 learners.