Commentary: Workers everywhere face the same challenge - rapidly depreciating skills

Commentary: Workers everywhere face the same challenge - rapidly depreciating skills

Professor Jan Thomas, vice-chancellor of Massey University in New Zealand, makes the case for lifelong learning, and shows how New Zealand and Singapore can build from each other’s strengths.

SINGAPORE: Ahakoa he iti he pounamu. 

The phrase translates to “Although it is small, it is a treasure” in New Zealand’s indigenous Maori language and perfectly captures the essence of both New Zealand and Singapore.

With populations of approximately five million people each, both countries are well-known for punching above their weight. While New Zealand and Singapore are recognised global leaders in their respective fields, both nations face similar challenges.

Singapore and New Zealand need to build fearless and future-ready human resources, highly skilled and ready to cope with the rapid change brought on by technology as well as competition from larger economies.

Our two nations’ competitive edge depends on the skillsets and capabilities of our workers.

While there is no secret sauce to building the workforce of the future, both nations are working hard to build the foundation for upskilling their people.

As we chase similar aspirations, there is much that we can learn from each other.


The youth education pathways in both countries are well-established, and the focus now needs to expand to include mature workers.

Preparing people to compete in the knowledge economy requires a new model of education and training, a model of lifelong learning.

This is particularly important as we are faced with a fast-changing knowledge economy, which means that skills are depreciating much more rapidly than they once did.

Self-checkouts are replacing cashiers, automated chat messaging software is replacing call centre staff, and user experience designers are being hired to develop seamless digital-banking products, replacing bank tellers.

ocbc new kiosks
By 2020, the OCBC bank will install such machines at 35 of its branches, reducing the need for customers to perform transactions over the counter. (Photo: OCBC)

To compete effectively in this rapid transformation across industries, workers need to upgrade their skills on a continuing basis.

The SkillsFuture programme has helped thousands of Singaporeans of all ages to enhance their employability and continue contributing to the economy.

As local universities follow the Government’s lead by rolling out alumni schemes that give them access to skill-based courses, Singapore is starting to reap the benefits of an upskilled workforce and prepare for the future demands of various industries.

Likewise, as New Zealand grapples with its own ageing population, it can take a leaf out of Singapore’s book and focus on cultivating a culture of continuous learning to ensure that its people can keep participating in the workforce.

The recent roll-out of the Digital Economy Work Programme in New Zealand is a step in the right direction, as we invest in a fuller education and enablement programme for the nation to acquire the digital skills it needs for growth.


While the classroom format is still what comes to mind when it comes to education, changes in today’s lifestyle are driving a sea-change in the format of learning.

Workers, who are increasingly mobile, expect that learning will fit into their busy schedules of work, family and travel – which means that learning also has to be available anywhere and anytime.

A man talks on the phone as he surfs the internet on his laptop at a local coffee shop in downtown
File photo of a man using his laptop at a coffee shop. (File photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Tertiary institutions have been driving the change, with more learning taking place online. Massey University call this “borderless education”.

The university started distance learning in 1960, with their first batch of students from around New Zealand receiving their weekly course readings in the mail. 

As demand for the programme grew, the university leveraged technological advancement to develop an online learning programme that now caters to students all over the world.

For academic institutions charged with equipping graduates to compete in today’s knowledge economy, the possibilities are great. 

Distance education, sophisticated learning-management systems and the opportunity to collaborate with research partners from around the world are just some of the transformational benefits that universities can and should continue to embrace.

However, we must ensure that the quality of education in distance learning remains on par with an in-class experience. Educators must understand what students need to be successful, be it pastoral care, social exchange or academic preparedness, and provide that in a digital environment.

Understanding the difference between information, knowledge and wisdom is key to constructing a student-supportive online learning environment.

Being able to fit work and caring responsibilities around study is especially helpful for those who cannot afford to come to campus every day.

Given that working-age graduates and postgraduates have higher employment rates and earn higher on average than non-graduates (seen for instance in the UK), distance learning programmes ensure that students all over the world and from all walks of life can upskill and leverage the benefits of higher learning.


As industries continue to relentlessly automate, people are concerned about job security and may tend to be technology-resistant. The aversion to anything digital or technology-based can lead to a widening gulf between the jobs of tomorrow and the workforce today.

Attendees carry their resumes at a job fair in Washington
Attendees at a job fair line up for an interview carrying their resumes in leather bags. (Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed)

We need to re-frame the narrative for the workforce – the technology-driven fourth Industrial Revolution has brought on the advent of new jobs and industries that did not exist previously. These new jobs and industries will have a role for everyone who embraces technology and relentlessly upskills to keep up with the speed of change. 

READ: Manufacturing cannot adopt a wait-and-see approach to transformation, a commentary

The task then becomes helping the workforce to embrace these technologies instead of rejecting them as threats to their jobs. This goes beyond hard skills education and requires an overall mindset shift.

The Digital Economy Work Programme in New Zealand is again a great example of how all segments and agencies of a country can pull together to ensure a collective focus on the right initiatives – in the right areas – to support the growth of the digital economy. 

Recognising these future demands, Singapore universities are also developing tailored programmes around analytics to create value from research and data analysis.

Education providers will play a crucial role in building the talent pool for the future by cultivating a system that teaches students to embrace technology and leverage it.

READ: What a tech education today for a digital workforce tomorrow looks like, a commentary

The world of work is in a state of flux, which is causing considerable anxiety — and with good reason. As the world become increasingly connected and globalised, it has increased the pressure on individuals to compete and stay relevant.

With similar goals, challenges, skillsets and levels of economic maturity, Singapore and New Zealand can leverage each other’s experience with sophisticated education systems to build successful partnerships that will play an indispensable role in helping both nations nurture talent for the future.

Professor Jan Thomas is vice-chancellor of Massey University in New Zealand.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)