Reskilling the Singapore Workforce for an AI driven future

Picture by Frank V

In pursuit of its Smart Nation vision, the Singapore government has implemented a range of policy measures to develop digital skills and literacy, including introducing programmes to teach basic digital skills so that no one is left behind.

According to INSEAD’s 2020 Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI), Singapore is the only country in Asia to make it to the top ten in terms of digital readiness, although key findings also showed a massive reskilling required at all levels to prepare the workforce for the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI).

We spoke to Dr Michael Fung, Deputy Chief Executive (Industry) of SkillsFuture Singapore and ConnecTechAsia2020 Conference speaker, on the challenges and opportunities to building stronger digital collaboration across Asia, the importance of developing AI skills, the necessity of collaboration between private and public sectors, as well as the mindset shifts required in Singapore’s workforce in order to succeed.

What are the challenges and opportunities to building stronger digital collaboration across Asia?

The global pandemic has disrupted the livelihoods of individuals and many businesses across Asia. However, the crisis has also brought about an accelerated, widespread adoption of new technologies, as well as behavioural and consumption changes towards a digital world.

As we continue to adapt to the new environment, we will see such technologies fundamentally alter the way we work, live and communicate with one another.

SSG has been working with our local training providers to partner regional governments and industry to extend skilling efforts to other countries. Some of the opportunities include exporting of our Continuing Education and Training courses and certification systems and establishing skills partnerships with the Philippines, India and South Korea. Through these partnerships, we advance regional collaboration to learn and share best practices.

However, challenges remain in building inclusiveness and having to adapt to the different digital strategies of countries. Countries may also have varying workforce skills sets, infrastructure and innovation systems.

Why is it especially important to prepare the workforce for the emergence of AI?

The emergence of AI has seen an increase in skills demand for machine learning, statistical modelling, data engineering, visualisation, and cybersecurity. Employers need to ensure that their employees are equipped with these skills to support company transformation brought about by AI.

Apart from these technical skills, individuals also need critical core skills in the domains of thinking critically, interacting with others and staying relevant. They also need to be open towards learning new technologies, to be curious and question assumptions, and to handle complexity and ambiguity.  

Which sectors have seen the most progress in terms of upskilling, digitalisation and contribution to a strong AI workforce, in the past 5-10 years?

Digitalisation impacts almost every sector, and we have seen strong adoption of AI and digital technologies in sectors such as finance, retail, and land transportation; even the legal and accounting profession is looking at adopting technology to transform the way business is done. Each sector will adopt technology and AI according to their specific contexts and needs.

For a start, we have put in place Skills Frameworks for 34 industry sectors to map out relevant emerging skills that include digital and AI skills, and the type of training programmes available. Companies and individuals can take reference from the Skills Frameworks to map out changes to the job roles that are impacted by the adoption of new technology and develop reskilling and upskilling plans for their employees.

Apart from Skills Frameworks, IMDA also collaborated with sector lead agencies to introduce the Industry Digital Plan (IDP) for different sectors to make going digital simple for SMEs. The IDP contains guidelines on digital solutions to adopt at each stage of growth and accompanying training programmes.

Why is it important for private and public sectors to collaborate? What initiatives have been done before?

Success in national efforts toward digitalisation requires strong multi-stakeholder involvement across entities in the education, labour, industry, and ICT domains. Public and private sector stakeholders – such as government agencies, industry associations, the Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs), private training providers, unions, and the workforce – must come together to drive a skilled digital workforce.

Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative is one such example. It is a national effort involving Singaporeans, businesses and the government to support better living through the use of technology. A key pillar of the Smart Nation is to transform the Singapore’s public sector into one that is ‘digital to the core’. It challenges our government agencies to provide easy-to-use, seamless, secure and relevant digital services for our citizens, businesses and public officers. 

The SkillsFuture movement in Singapore plays a major role in building a skills ecosystem that cultivates an agile workforce with the skills necessary to contribute to the continued growth of the economy. SSG works closely with other government agencies, trade bodies, unions, employers, IHLs, private training providers, and community organisations to ensure that industry-relevant skills training and upgrading for individuals continue to be readily accessible throughout their lives. 

One example is our Work-Study programmes, where we have a large number of employers (e.g. DHL Supply Chain Singapore, Resorts World Sentosa, SBS Transit,  Singapore Aero Engine Services) work with our IHLs to offer place-and-train programmes for graduates to deepen their skills while working in the companies. Another example is our SkillsFuture Queen Bee companies (e.g. Apple, Bosch-Rexroth, IBM, SMRT), who are industry leaders with the networks and expertise to support SMEs in their upskilling efforts.

What mindset shifts are important for success in Singapore’s workforce and citizens?

Nurturing a mindset of embracing change and lifelong learning among our citizens, will increase the resilience of our workforce in the face of technological advancements, globalisation, and broad-based economic disruptions.

With the ongoing pandemic, many may believe that our progression as an economy should take a pause, but it is in fact the complete opposite. Especially in today’s climate, individuals are encouraged to take charge of their learning journey, see it as a long-term investment and adopt a learn-for-life mindset.

Companies also need to adapt with changing times and continue to look at investing in technology and supporting employees in developing digital skills.