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Should Companies Provide Lifelong Learning for Employees?

Companies are increasingly looking at ways of providing continuous learning or upskilling for employees to help them adapt to the arrival of AI and other new technologies. One country that has pioneered lifelong learning for its entire population is Singapore, with its SkillsFuture platform that is available to every citizen. 

BRINK spoke to Jason Tan, associate professor of Policy, Curriculum and Leadership at the National Institute of Education, Singapore, about how well the experiment is going.

TAN: A major motivation for the Singapore government is the increasing challenge posed by technological disruption to workplaces, not only in Singapore, but around the world. AI is no longer threatening just lower-skilled jobs, but also white collar jobs — we’re talking about artificial intelligence now being able to interpret radiograms, even to write up press releases. 

These trends are very worrying, not only for the individuals who may be facing job obsolescence, but also for governments who will have to address the possible disruptive effects brought about by the emergence of technological disruption. 

Course for Personal Fulfillment

On its SkillsFuture platform, the Singapore government has broadened the idea of lifelong learning to encompass not only employability concerns, but also lifelong learning for personal fulfillment. 

It has had to respond to some public criticism that it’s not really wise to be using public funds to subsidize individuals who take up courses that aren’t directly related — at least on the surface — to the workplace and job hunts. 

The government’s reply is that its conception of lifelong learning is much broader than just narrow employability concerns. In other words, lifelong learning is for everyone out there, no matter what kind of job you’re in. So long as you’re 25 years or above, you are entitled to receive periodic cash credits into what is called your Personal SkillsFuture Credit Account. 

You can use this money, for example, to enroll in courses that are run by universities, polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education. At the same time, you can also enroll in courses that are conducted directly by companies. So, there are two major categories of course providers in Singapore, as far as the SkillsFuture Initiative is concerned.

BRINK: What is the motivation for companies — why are they feeling they need to provide this for their employees?

TAN: That is a tough part of the equation — why should companies invest in this? And it’s not an easy question for companies to answer. I think the government knows that it has to provide some sort of incentive system for companies. 

Too Much Emphasis on Qualifications Rather Than Skills

A major long-standing problem in Singapore is that there’s been too much emphasis in the schools and in many workplaces on paper qualifications for job hiring and, of course, for promotions, for career advancement. 

The government has tried to bring about a massive culture shift by putting more emphasis on what they call ‘skills mastery’ instead of paper qualifications.

Over the last decade or so, the government has tried to bring about a massive culture shift, both in the schools and in workplaces — by putting more emphasis on what they call “skills mastery” instead of paper qualifications — when it comes to the hiring of employees, promotions and career advancement.

This is going to be a tough undertaking because there’s a very entrenched culture in Singapore of doing well in examinations when you’re in school and advancing in the education system on the basis of your superior performance in national exams. And then of course, if you do well in university, that stands you in better stead than someone who has not gone to university, and so on.

BRINK: So do you see any shift in the corporate culture toward a continuous learning model for employees?

TAN: I would say it’s probably early days yet. That would be my frank assessment. The latest figures that I managed to unearth about SkillsFuture credit use rates for the year 2020 indicate that 49% of people who are eligible to use SkillsFuture credits, have done so. That figure isn’t exactly a resounding endorsement of the widespread use of SkillsFuture credits.

I think many employers are still using paper qualifications rather than this idea of skills mastery to determine who gets hired, who gets promoted and so on. And that’s been one of the factors that haven’t yet been addressed, which is: What weight exactly will be given to these short-term courses that you take, that are run by companies and not by universities, say? Will these courses that are not run by established institutions of higher learning be accorded the same weight by employers? 

It appears that InfoComm technology courses are the most popular courses, data analytics, artificial intelligence, that sort of thing.

Rethinking the Way We Work

BRINK: So do you see that companies will eventually come around to this model? 

TAN: I think the COVID pandemic has shaken up the entire society because it has brought about so much disruption in workplaces. Quite a number of people have lost their jobs, and it has provided that much-needed opportunity to rethink the way workplaces are currently organized. 

But massive cultural change won’t be immediate, and it never is. The Singapore government is now trying to change the way teaching and learning is organized in schools. So for example, by reducing the emphasis on examination grades in favor of what they term the joy of learning. 

What I see so far is that there hasn’t yet been substantial change as far as parents and students and teachers are concerned, I guess because people are so used to the idea of students focusing heavily on exams, doing well in exams in order to advance year-by-year. And supposedly, the better you do in school, the better your job prospects will eventually be.

Another prong in the Singapore government’s push for lifelong learning is that of providing second chances and trying to soften the rigidity of the current system. Giving you the chance to revisit job options, take up new jobs and acquire qualifications later in life, not necessarily when you’re in your teens and early 20s. So, we’re talking about letting working adults go back to school on a much wider scale than has been the case in Singapore. 

That’s very admirable, but then again, I come back to that question that I posed earlier, which is: How will the professional world of jobs adapt?

Jason Tan

Associate Professor in Policy, Curriculum and Leadership at The National Institute of Education

Jason Tan is an associate professor in policy, curriculum and leadership at the National Institute of Education, Singapore. He obtained his doctorate in comparative education at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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