Commentary: Are we ready to be the digital workforce Singapore needs?
How can those with no experience or training in coding or other digital skills become part of a digital workforce? Singapore’s economic transformation will add pressure to society’s cohesion if we do not broaden digital opportunities for more workers, says Temus CEO KC Yeoh.
SINGAPORE: The era of highly competitive prices and enthusiasm for globalisation has come to an end, with international economic conditions having “fundamentally changed”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Aug 21) at the National Day Rally.
While Singapore has little influence over global inflation, he said, it is within our power to become more productive and competitive through economic transformation, so that workers can earn more and become better off in real terms.
More than ever, we need to help workers keep up - especially those without prior knowledge and training in digital and technology skills. Already, 81 per cent of employees expressed concern about the impact of digitalisation on jobs, according to a National Trade Unions Congress (NTUC) Learning Hub report.
POWERING TRANSFORMATION WITH A DIGITALISED WORKFORCE
Singapore’s demand for digital tech talent is set to increase significantly. Of the 10 professions the World Economic Forum estimates a burgeoning global demand for by 2025, nine are heavily driven by tech capabilities.
Daunting as this may sound, a 2021 SkillsFuture Singapore report titled Skills Demand for the Future Economy predicts that digital skills will be needed in varying degrees, depending on their job role applications.
The majority of tech roles across the 23 industry transformation maps are expected to be “tech-lite” - involving the use of foundational digital solutions at work. “Tech-heavy” roles are specialised roles responsible for the development, implementation and maintenance of more complex technological solutions and applications.
So most workers are not expected to master artificial intelligence, but they will need to be able to make smarter decisions with data using simple ‘drag-and-drop’ visual analytics, or automate rudimentary processes in business functions like marketing or human resources, with basic coding skills in robotic process automation.
SOCIAL COHESION, NOT JUST ECONOMY, AT STAKE
Equipping the broader population with even tech-lite digital skills is not without its challenges.
It is generally assumed that trainees will need a foundational knowledge in computer science and programming before embarking on digital skills. Second, trainees may be faced with difficulty in applying their learning in the varied contexts of a new tech-lite role, or company.
Failing to make mainstream a digital skillset could prove costly. Around the world, societies that become digital economies are grappling with an increase in social inequality, caused by the job market being segregated into low-skill low-pay and high-skill high-pay segments.
The new digital future will favour those who provide intellectual and physical capital - innovators, shareholders, investors, and digitally skilled workers – rather than those with fewer relevant skills, who will continue to fall behind.
This could also potentially hurt Singapore’s prospects of attracting top global companies to invest and innovate locally.
For Singapore, the price of failing to equip our broader population with these digital skills may be the ossification of a two-tier economy.
OPPORTUNITIES ACROSS THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
Singapore’s early investment in industry transformation and training provides a firm foundation for this effort. Company training committees (CTCs) spearheaded by NTUC have been embraced by many small-and-medium enterprises since the pandemic, bringing the total number of such CTCs to more than 1,000 since its launch.
There is reason to believe more targeted training opportunities can benefit a broader segment of Singaporeans, especially those without a background or prior training in coding and other digital skills.
UST, a leading digital technology company, introduced Step IT Up in 2014 in the United States to create computer science career opportunities for minority and disadvantaged groups. Since then, the programme has run in Mexico, Poland, Australia, Costa Rica and Israel.
About 87 per cent of programme graduates have secured digital and technology jobs at leading global companies, including Walmart, Home Depot and Akamai, and most stayed at least two years. Notably, none of these trainees had a background in computer science.
The divide between those with digital skills and those without, may not be as wide or permanent as some believe. Based on UST’s experience, the key lies in the motivation and learning agility of the trainees.
This week, Temus launched Step IT Up in Singapore with the aim of training fresh graduates and mid-career professionals, with those without prior training or experience in mind, and helping them secure digital and technology roles in the next few years.
CREATING A DIGITAL AND COHESIVE FUTURE FOR SINGAPORE
As more sectors embrace digitalisation, technology and talent flows will further blur any separation between what’s ‘digital’ and what’s not.
The impact that such a digital future could have on Singapore’s cohesion as a society speaks to the importance of why we need to succeed at digitalising the Singapore workforce, present and future.
KC Yeoh is the chief executive officer of Temus, a digital transformation services company established by Temasek and UST.