SINGAPORE: He used to teach mathematics at a junior college but after taking a leap of faith to make a mid-career switch in 2018, Kok Chee Kean now works with numbers and problem solving in a different way.
As a software engineer at business consulting group Maltem, the 39-year-old builds monitoring dashboards, application programming interfaces and other web applications for his projects.
Like his days as a teacher, Mr Kok said he is still required to apply mathematical analysis at his new job. He has also been given opportunities to solve different problems.
“There’s a breadth of new experience that I really value,” he said.
To make the switch into the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, Mr Kok signed up for a three-month, full-time web development boot camp at coding school General Assembly after he left his job at the Ministry of Education.
There, he picked up various programming languages and tools. The projects he had to complete under tight deadlines also gave him a taste of working in the industry.
Mr Kok said his interest in programming started in 2011 after he tried to fiddle with the codes of an online multiplayer battle arena game.
“The game was in Chinese and I was playing with English-speaking friends from other countries. I was the only one who could understand Chinese so I have to do the translations all the time. I got tired of that.
“So I decided to take a part of the game and add in translations. Now everybody can play without bothering me,” he recalled with a laugh.
The changes he made caught the eye of the original game developers who invited him to join the team. It was then that Mr Kok began learning the programming language C++ through “an unbelievable amount of Googling and experimentation”.
When he started teaching, he would programme online quizzes, simulations to teach mathematical concepts like randomness, and even automated email replies.
“I love teaching. I also like programming and I kind of miss the feeling of building things … So after 10 years in the education sector, I thought why not? It was time to make the switch,” he told CNA.
HELP TO SWITCH CAREERS
Mr Kok is among those who have sought a second career in the booming technology sector as Singapore works on transforming into a digital economy.
As the relentless march of technology leaves its mark across industries, jobs have changed. While some became obsolete, new opportunities emerged in other sectors.
According to recruitment consultancy Robert Half, these new in-demand roles include those in software development, robotics process automation, big data analytics and information technology (IT) security.
Meanwhile, certain existing roles, such as business analysts and product managers, now require new skills like data analytics.
Soft skills are also increasingly important, said Robert Half Singapore’s managing director Matthieu Imbert-Bouchard.
These include communication skills, as well as having a collaborative and adaptable mindset to cope with a rapidly-changing workplace.
To help Singaporeans handle new technology, the Government has rolled out a variety of initiatives.
These include the two-day SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace courses that aim to help people gain foundational digital skills such as understanding emerging technology and data trends; as well as professional conversion programmes for those mulling a career switch.
For Mr Kok, he tapped on the Tech Immersion and Placement Programme (TIPP) which provided a subsidy for his boot camp at General Assembly. The subsidy more than halved his course fees from S$12,000 to about S$5,000.
With the help of General Assembly, Mr Kok also went for a couple of job interviews and was hired by Maltem within a month after finishing the boot camp.
The Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) said as of last October, about 1,400 trainees have completed the TIPP, which converts individuals unfamiliar with ICT into industry-ready professionals through immersive training.
More than 90 per cent of these trainees have found jobs, such as cybersecurity specialists and data analysts, in firms ranging from start-ups to large enterprises, the spokesperson said.
As for the broader TechSkills Accelerator (TeSa) initiative, which TIPP comes under, more than 93,000 training places have been taken up or committed since its launch in April 2016.
This has benefitted more than 5,000 companies in upskilling their existing workforce or employing trained local individuals in ICT, said IMDA in response to queries.
NOT EVERYONE IS READY
But even with these options, not everyone is ready or as receptive to riding the digital wave.
A 2019 survey by PwC showed one in five Singaporeans being concerned about the future impact of technology on their jobs. This put Singapore as the second-most anxious country in the 11-nation poll.
When asked why they felt nervous or scared, 58 per cent of respondents were worried about being made redundant by technology and 36 per cent feared about not having the right skills.
Slightly more than half also thought that it is likely their roles will be made obsolete or significantly changed by automation over the next 10 years, the survey said.
Recent labour market data also seem to be showing the strains of a changing economy.
While total employment grew in the third quarter of 2019, the unemployment rate also crept up. This reflects the growing mismatch between jobs and skills available, said Mr Imbert-Bouchard.
The top five roles that are finding it most difficult to hire are those in IT security, business intelligence, technology risk, cloud technology, and software and application development, according to research done by Robert Half.
Singapore’s Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said last month that the jobs and skills mismatch here will not go away.
In fact, Singapore must expect it “if we are transforming our economy at a fast enough rate” and see it as an opportunity instead.
Asked if Singapore is making the digital transition too quickly, OCBC’s head of treasury research and strategy Selena Ling said given how the rise of the digital economy is a global phenomenon, the pace of transformation is not something that can be controlled.
Overall, an unemployment rate of 2.3 per cent remains low compared to the country’s historical data as well as other parts of the world.
“So even if you have upward creep in terms of jobs-skills mismatch, you still have a stable and fairly resilient labour market,” she said.
Professor Sumit Agarwal from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School said: “Once the genie’s out of the bottle, which is digitisation, we have to move in that direction. We can't stop.”
“The only thing to do is how we can help workers to keep up.”
MORE CAN BE DONE
Mr Imbert-Bouchard said the Government should continue existing efforts like TeSA and the wider SkillsFuture initiatives, while the education system needs to evolve alongside the rapidly-changing technology landscape.
With the addition of more technology-centric programmes into the formal curriculum here, Ms Ling said the education sector is now “a lot more plugged in with the general economic direction and industry needs”.
The challenge remains on how to manage the digital push for the existing workforce, especially those that have a higher risk of lagging behind like the professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs).
This is because PMETs typically develop deep skillsets required for their roles, which make it difficult for them to transit into other industries. Those with higher financial obligations, especially middle-aged PMETs, also find it hard to accept lower-paying jobs, said DBS economist Irvin Seah in a 2019 report on how PMETs are “exceptionally vulnerable”.
Moving forward, Ms Ling said more help could come in the form of expanding the professional conversion programmes.
There should also be more support measures to nudge businesses, especially the small- and medium-sized enterprises, to not only adopt technology, but also to help retrain their workers.
“The easy thing would be to retrench and hire new workers. You need to have businesses that are willing to help incumbent workers to transit along with the jobs,” added the OCBC economist.
ADVICE FOR EMPLOYEES
Employees will also need to rise to the challenge, embrace new skills and stay ahead of the curve.
Ms Jaya Dass, managing director of recruitment firm Randstad in Malaysia and Singapore, said: “We recommend workers to actively keep up with the trends that are happening in their industry by participating in networking events and subscribing to trade reports.
“These third-party interactions and learning can provide workers with new perspectives on how they can improve themselves to be prepared for the new digital economy and stay employable.”
Workers can also schedule regular chats with their managers and colleagues about upskilling opportunities, she added.
For Mr Kok, his advice to those mulling a career switch would be to find out the resources, such as grants and skills upgrading options, that are available.
Noting that the loss of income was one of his biggest hesitations, he did his sums and began saving up at least two years before quitting his job.
“I didn't know about the TIPP until General Assembly mentioned it,” he said. “If I had known about it earlier, maybe I would have made the switch earlier.”
“If you are worried about not having technical skills, it is also good to find out what resources are available, such as these boot camps. There are also courses online.”
Mr Kok said over the past two years, he has also had to cope with questions about why he is leaving the civil service and making a career switch when he is nearly 40 years old. But it has all been worth it.
“Especially for mid-career switches, don’t discount the skills that you've built up over the course of your existing career because a lot of that will be transferable.
“Probably the only difference is the technical skills, but that can be learnt with time,” he said.