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Are Singaporean Workers As Competitive As We Think, When It Comes to Digital Skills?

Competition in the region is rife, with developing countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia hot on our heels. We take a look at what aspects of digitalisation our workforce has room to improve.

In an interview with the New Paper, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong shared the challenges for Singapore’s economy and workforce.

Stressing on the need to stay competitive, he pointed out how regionally our competitors included developing countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, who are catching up economically and building up the competencies of their workforce.

In addition, our ageing population is also a serious concern, with Minister Tong adding: “In 2030, the number of people aged over 65 in Singapore will double, and that is a staggering prospect. It means our effective workforce will decline.”

In addition, a pandemic-driven rise in digital business models has also meant a faster push toward workers with digital skill sets.

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Upskilling has thus become a national priority. As former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once said: “We can’t change the genetic composition of our population, but we can maximise our potential with education and training.”

Public-private partnerships are a pillar of Singapore’s reskilling and upskilling strategy

In fact, the Singapore government kickstarted programmes such as SkillsFuture as early as 2014 with the aim of retraining Singapore’s workforce. It provided credits for those 25 and above to study over 24,000 courses ranging from digital technology to business management.

Partnerships have also been formed with companies based in Singapore to develop skill sets that match specific job requirements that they and their industries need.

Companies such as PayPal, Microsoft, Siemens and several other multi-national companies (MNCs) partnered on these public-private workforce retraining programmes, with participants benefitting from the resulting synergies.

According to a report by Nikkei Asia, Gangadevi Balakrishnan, a software engineer, secured her position at PayPal with the help of these programmes and is eager to continue her upskilling.

The 29-year-old said: “I am personally interested in security and artificial intelligence. Therefore, I will be looking into programs and courses related to these areas.”

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Earlier last year, the U.S. online payments company expanded its Singaporean workforce by 25%, in areas such as product management, software engineering, cyber security, and data science.

This was part of their programme with the Infocomm Media Development Authority’s (IMDA) TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) programme that was supported by Digital Industry Singapore (DISG).

These local hires have since worked on projects covering SME digitalisation, PayPal’s e-wallet and commerce platform, as well as risk, compliance, trust and security.

Aaron Wong, chief executive officer of PayPal Pte Ltd, revealed the Government’s involvement in TeSA, coupled with its long-term view on developing the tech sector, minimises companies’ risks and enables continuity over the long term.

This was also something Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing alluded to in July during National University of Singapore’s inaugural Lifelong Learning Festival.

Minister Chan focused on three ways that Singapore’s institutes of higher learning (IHLs) needed to support adult learners below:

  1. Academia and industry should work together to identify skill demand and curate relevant training
  2. Singapore needs to move beyond conventional full qualifications, such as diplomas and degrees, to deliver more timely and bite-sized training, or micro-credentials
  3. Our IHL’s need to work together as one integrated training system, to allow adult learners to stack modules across different institutions based on their learning objectives.

So how’s Singapore ranking in terms of competitivity so far?

Aaron recently spoke to Workpedia by MyCareersFuture at a panel session hosted by the IMD Business School at its Singapore campus, which launched their latest Competitiveness Report in June 2022.

According to the report, Singapore jumped up from 3rd (up from 5th) in terms of its global competitiveness, headline up the Asia Pacific region, thanks to our strong economic performance and gross national product (GDP) growth.

However, signs that improvements in competitiveness could be challenging, with inflationary pressures, resource shortages, and supply-chain bottlenecks mount in the short term.

Speaking on the results of the report, Aaron said: “I think Singapore’s ranking has not been a surprise.

“If you look at the four categories of the index, the government has done well on the economy, with private-public partnership done well.

Singapore’s ranking didn’t fare as well on certain issues such as management practices, scientific infrastructure, and health and environment, though. Aaron opined: “I’m a tad surprised that infrastructure has not scored as well, though if you talk about its ports, internet access and logistics- those are usually pretty high.

“Then you have other soft skills, education and so on… the ranking itself is not a surprise. Singapore used to be top, but now it is at fifth spot.

“It’s not that Singapore has deteriorated, but other countries like the Nordics have improved. Hence, it’s not zero sum, it’s all relative.”

Why Singaporean workers need to be agile and flexible in the fast-changing, fast-growing tech space

Speaking about PayPal’s labour strategy in Singapore, he shared: “We have continually invested in building a talent pipeline even before I joined PayPal. We’ve recognized the importance of this given the importance of information security in the region.

“The speed and intensity of security attacks and hacking, phishing and smishing, have increased. What we worry about most are account takeovers- where a hacker takes over your account and makes financial transfers.

“If you look at what the Singapore government is doing, they’re moving to SingPass, and moving everything to facial recognition, as well as other soft tools such as geocaching, which tracks your IP address, so all the peripheral information around why you transact, and who you are, is important to provide different sets of information security.

“We also know there’s a supply mismatch in terms of talent for our sector. Of course, PayPal knows it isn’t going to hire so many, but we’ve decided to train hundreds through these public-private partnerships, on behalf of the rest of the financial technology industry that goes to our partners and clients as well. “

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Speaking on the digital hard and soft skills that Singaporeans need to upskill and reskill for in the short or medium-term, he believes that the hard skills are no different from any other tech company, in terms of basic programming and product management.

He believes that soft skills are really about resilience. “We have to move as fast as the industry and our competitors”, Aaron added.

He also cited another recent example where PayPal needed agile thinking to think out of the box, with the company providing assistance to Ukrainians fleeing the war.

“When the refugees were leaving, they had their credit cards, but no access to their bank accounts.

“We enabled PayPal as a peer-to-peer transfer, no different from companies such as Western Union.”

“Because they have a PayPal account, their family and friends could transfer money into their account, they can use that to make payments in Western Europe to pay for groceries, necessities or rent.

“The trouble is if you have a credit card, you’re not able to pay for the bill if you don’t have access to your banking facilities, but our e-wallet teams were able to come up with this brand-new use case in less than a month.”

Ultimately, these are EQ solutions rather than purely tech solutions, which is why soft skills matter in the industry.

Aaron elaborated: “It’s ultimately product managers who pull different solutions together for something that works, which is a skill.

“We’ve spoken to IMDA and EDB about this skill gap, and as an industry we need to put in more effort to train up the next generation.”

Ultimately, what will keep Singapore’s labour force competitive?

“Everything hinges on how broad your definition of skills is,” according to Misiek Piskorski, Dean of IMD Southeast Asia and Oceania, and Professor of Digital Strategy at IMD.

“Is it about how many people we can teach to do machine learning; or how to drive digital transformation; or how to run analytics in ways nobody can do?”

“To do these things, is really about mindset, with an ability to change and speak up.  I think there are still a number of factors where the fear of failure is still here in Singaporeans.”

“The country is an extremely well-oiled execution machine, but how do you move from that to an imagination machine, so to speak?”

Misiek believes that this challenge is one that is being played out in local organisations as they seek to move forwards toward digitalisation, and concludes: “Ultimately both workers and leaders have to have a huge EQ to understand how to marry both technical skills and soft skills.”

“This is a lot of the work that we do at IMD, to help our students move past just technical skills, and that’s going to be a critical component that needs to be addressed for Singapore moving forwards.”

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