SINGAPORE: Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is expected to gain more traction and prominence as countries - including Singapore - look at building a skilled workforce that is future-ready.
Building up a highly skilled workforce is high on the agenda for most countries, as jobs are expected to change with greater adoption of technology and automation while economies like Singapore are bracing for slower labour force growth.
To help sharpen the skills of workers and find out where they stand in skills excellence, countries have been taking part in contests, such as the biennial WorldSkills competition.
Dubbed as the Youth Olympics of skills, participants aged below 22 from all around the world compete to emerge as the best in their trades – in a wide range of skill areas such as robotics, aircraft maintenance and restaurant service.
MORE THAN A BENCHMARKING EXERCISE
More than just a benchmarking exercise, such competitions also aim to promote the importance of technical and vocational education and training. Singapore has been represented by youths from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and the five polytechnics.
Singapore's participation in WorldSkills was first initiated in 1992 by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who suggested that ITE should raise the image of technical education and the profile of skilled professions by taking part in international skills competition.
The 2015 competition held in Sao Paolo, Brazil, saw a record number of about 1,200 participants from nearly 60 countries. Organisers said it shows the rising awareness of the need to harness technical and vocational skills for the future.
President of WorldSkills Simon Bartley, said: "What I think is happening around the world now is that governments are beginning - perhaps at the end of this economic downturn - to actually say that we need a mix-skills economy.
“Yes, it is good to have graduates, post-graduates, PHD, doctorates, but much of the work which needs to be done to make our society, industry and business work is actually done by highly qualified technicians, craftsmen and professionals in those areas. I think that realisation is meaning that policies of governments are changing."
Brazil too is pushing hard on the skills agenda. For example, SENAI – the National Service for Industrial Training - offers technical and vocational courses designed with strong inputs from the industry. Its youths are exposed to apprenticeships to make it easier for them to transit to the working world.
SENAI Executive Manager of International Relations, Frederico Lamego, said: "In Brazil, we still have a big challenge because only 8 per cent of the young are enrolled in technical courses in Brazil. Our challenge is trying to at least be closer to OECD, where the average is around 40 per cent, so there is still a huge challenge for us to promote TVET.
“We want to create a perception in society that technical courses, are very valuable and very important and can be an alternative and successful way for the young to start their careers."
TECHNICAL, VOCATIONAL TRACK FOR STUDENTS IN SINGAPORE
In Singapore, 60 per cent of students already pursue the technical and vocational track in their post-secondary education at ITEs and polytechnics. According to observers, the vocational tracks will become more appealing with the SkillsFuture movement.
For example, students can expect to gain deeper industry-relevant skills with enhanced internships. These enhanced internships have structured learning outcomes and mentors to better guide students.
By 2020, all courses in ITE and polytechnics will have enhanced internships.
Nanyang Polytechnic Registrar Thambyrajah T, said: "Previously, the expectation was that they will pick up the work skills, teamwork, leadership and other parts. But now with appropriate companies, they can pick up the technical skills. The competencies will also be met and they will go to relevant industries."
ITE is already on track to rope in more than 350 companies by end November, to offer enhanced internships in areas like space technology and retail service.
Institute of Technical Education CEO Bruce Poh, said: “The industry will take a greater role by having mentors who are trained in this area in providing mentorship to our students.
"They will learn much more within the industry. The Earn and Learn programme will further deepen skills for our students and hopefully, they can retain (the knowledge) in the particular sector when they go out to work in the end."
The Earn and Learn programme allows ITE and polytechnic graduates to become full-time employees in a company while undergoing structured on-the-job training and mentorship, leading to an industry-recognised certification. Participants can look forward to a structured career progression pathway.
Such a prospect is something that 22-year-old Daniel Lee is looking forward to. Mr Lee, who is currently a final year student pursuing a diploma in Information Security at Nanyang Polytechnic, first pursued the vocational track in ITE as he had not done well in his O-levels.
The former WorldSkills competitor, who has won a silver medal for Singapore, welcomes the push for progression and recognition based on skills rather than just academic qualifications. “If given the opportunity, I will take up the Earn and Learn programme which allows me to learn while working,” he said.
The student added: “Cyber security is going to be quite important and we are in need of this. In my course, there is a strong foundation of cyber security and digital forensic. So, with all these skills I’ve learnt from my course, I can implement in real-life."
However, stakeholders said while the SkillsFuture initiatives will improve the perception and value of technical and vocational education and training, more needs to be done to change the mindsets of employers and society.
Mr Thambyrajah said: "We know that by looking at the advanced economies such as Switzerland and Germany, we know that this is the way to go but I think there must be the buy-in from the parents, from the students.”
He added that the perception of technical and vocational education in Singapore must be changed. “But that will only happen if parents realise that there are real good employment outcomes – a good career or a good future for their children. This also would have to be validated by the workforce, so industry also has to pay for skills.”
Added Mr Poh: “If we move to the direction where people are paid for their skills, I think perception would change and they are well-regarded in the public. And as such, I think ITE graduates will be very well-recognised. I think it would happen, it won’t change overnight but it would take many years."
ITE said public perception towards technical and vocational education has already been improving over the years, due to the building of modern campuses and a wider range of courses being offered.
Its survey showed that 70 per cent of respondents had a positive perception of ITE in 2012, compared to 34 per cent in 1997. It will be conducting another survey by March next year.
Acting Education Minister for Higher Education and Skills Ong Ye Kung has said that the distinction between the vocational route and academic track is becoming less meaningful. He added that there is a need to broaden the definition of success in society and institutions will be encouraged to better recognise practical knowledge and experience.