The Big Read: In the pursuit of technology, what happens to workers left behind?
No job will be spared from technological disruptions economists say, and more can be done to help those with a higher risk of being left behind.
SINGAPORE: As the relentless march of technology leaves its mark across industries, scores of Singapore workers young and old have risen to the challenge, jumping over hurdles to embrace new skills and stay ahead of the curve.
Yet, there remains a segment of society who risk being left in the dust. Some of these workers, who are typically of the older set and quick to profess a lack of technological know-how, are not only struggling to keep pace with changes roiling almost every industry.
They also fear technology would usurp their roles, leaving them jobless.
It begs the question: What happens to these workers?
While these challenges are not unique to Singapore, the importance of adapting to technology is more acute for workers here than in many other countries, said economics lecturer Kelvin Seah of the National University of Singapore.
This is because there is a much higher tendency for firms here to replace labour with machines than in Indonesia, for instance, where labour costs are low, Dr Seah added.
By contrast, wages in Singapore are relatively high as the country lacks an abundant labour supply. Firms, therefore, have sought to adapt by deploying more machines relative to workers in their production processes.
“We might even expect to see machines taking on some of the cleaning roles (and) similarly… other jobs which require low skills that machines can potentially perform,” said Dr Seah.
Ms Selena Ling, head of treasury research and strategy at the OCBC Bank, said the pace of technological adoption here may be accelerated to some degree because of Singapore’s Smart Nation ambitions, advanced manufacturing activities and efforts to draw foreign direct investments, among other factors.
The findings of a study released in September last year said as much when it found that Singapore’s labour market was set to face the largest degree of job displacement regionally in the next decade.
The study, which examined the impact of artificial intelligence on workers in six Southeast Asian economies, also found that Singapore would have to confront the biggest mismatch between skills and jobs created in the region.
READ: Confidence to face an AI-dominated future requires preparing Singaporeans for jobs not yet created, a commentary
By 2028, about one-fifth of Singapore’s full-time equivalent workforce (20.6 per cent) will have their jobs displaced, the study by technology firm Cisco and economic forecasting agency Oxford Economics showed. This is higher than in Vietnam (13.8 per cent), Thailand (11.9 per cent), the Philippines (10.1 per cent), Indonesia (8.1 per cent) and Malaysia (7.4 per cent).
The Republic is also set to confront a gap in average skill levels of 14.3 on a scale of 100, higher than the Philippines (13.9), Vietnam (13.4), Malaysia (12.7), Thailand (8.5) and Indonesia (8.4).
This, said the team behind the study, is due to Singapore’s digital transformation happening at a faster rate than other countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The anxiety of many Singapore workers has not escaped the attention of the Republic’s lawmakers.
Speaking on Tuesday (Feb 26) during the debate on this year’s Budget Statement, Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency) warned the House that the technological pursuit cannot be a “blind” one, and stressed the need to put “people first” and “technology second”.
Mr Seah, the chief executive officer of supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice, called on human resource divisions to rise to the call and “remember they are dealing with humans”.
But despite the best efforts of some companies, there remain pockets of individuals averse to technology for fear of being unable to cope, as interviews with workers over the past month showed.
For this group, their immediate future is unclear, even though economists say there will always be a place for menial work in Singapore or developing economies elsewhere. The options could be more limited for those in their 50s and above, who still have several years — if not decades — left in their working life.
Yet, going by the examples of those interviewed, one does not necessarily have to be technologically inclined to adapt or pick up new skills, in order to stay employable. At a cleaning company, for instance, cleaners are trained to perform handyman and plumbing services.
Meanwhile, employees at travel agencies now devote more time to customer engagement, having seen their paperwork reduced with the help of technology.
READ: People ready to retire later but preparing older workers will require more than reskilling, a commentary
‘WE ARE OLD ALREADY’
Still, for the older workers, the challenges are real.
Mr Hassan Rahman, 62, a cleaner at Our Tampines Hub, prefers to stick to mopping and cleaning the premises, rather than operate cleaning equipment.
Asked if he was open to handling technology as part of his job, Mr Hassan said using such equipment entails knowledge of operating their various components, such as those for polishing. “I am old already and had better not. I don’t know how to use machines,” the cleaner with ISS, a facility services company, said.
Mr Hassan, who was a mover for more than two decades before he switched to cleaning, echoes the sentiments of many workers — particularly older ones — who would plump for the status quo.
Madam Hun Peck Kien, 69, a cleaner at Nick Cleaning Services, felt that technology was not beneficial, as it would replace workers.
“We have no experience, we don’t know anything, so if we were to work with robots or machines, it’ll be difficult and we’ll face a lot of pressure,” Mdm Hun, who is deployed at Our Tampines Hub’s food centre and Tampines Mall, said in Mandarin.
But when push comes to shove, she acknowledged that she may have no alternative but to learn. “If we don’t, (my boss) would ask us to leave,” she said.
Cleaner Tay Eng Chor, 65, who also works for ISS, said his supervisors are given the task of operating the cleaning equipment. “They won’t ask us to use technology — we are not on that level,” he added.
Ms Faith Wong, ISS’ director of people and culture, said that the company would identify suitable role models to inspire workers who are not ready to use technology, so as to understand their fears and address them, as well as provide feedback.
“For the foreseeable future, we will continue to perform some work that is not impacted by new technology. Hence, there will always be some work for those few who are unable to adapt,” she said.
Since 2017, commercial cleaning company Spic & Span has introduced user-friendly technology to make the job of its cleaners safer and easier. For instance, it trained them to operate window robots to clean tall glass windows that cannot be reached by ladder, and rolled out mobile carpet sweepers that workers with disabilities can use.
A registered social enterprise, the firm hires marginalised Singaporeans — such as older retrenched workers, persons with disabilities, ex-offenders and the homeless.
Mr Benjamin Chua, 31, its founder, said workers who rejected technology were the minority, and would usually be reassigned to other functions, such as cleaning lower office windows.
“It’s only until the point where they reject everything… (that we) start reducing their job scope until they pretty much do nothing,” he said, adding that these stem more from attitude issues.
In such cases, Spic & Span’s clients may request that these workers leave their posts.
Mr Chua said the company would try to redeploy them, but the employees would mostly choose to stop work because of a change in the location of their workplace.
HOW SOME FIRMS AND WORKERS DID IT
Even as some workers remain averse to technology, others eager to break into new realms of work or learn new skills have taken a leap of faith with technology.
But success did not come easy. It took large doses of hard work and even tears along the way.
Ms Nahariah Mohd Nor, 47, was at a crossroads after spending about a decade in four DBS Bank branches as a teller. With her branch due to merge with another, she jumped at the opportunity in 2017 to be retrained as a member of the bank’s pioneering video teller machine team.
The bank introduced such machines in 2017 to provide customers with round-the-clock branch banking services, including instant replacement of debit cards and banking tokens. Customer service officers like Ms Nahariah are on hand to appear via a live video from 8.30am to midnight daily on these machines — numbering 42 islandwide today.
The transition was no cakewalk for Ms Nahariah, who conceded that she was not technologically savvy. Disheartened within the first week of training, she emailed her human resources (HR) department, requesting to return to a branch as she was not suited for the new role.
“They said, ‘why don’t you give yourself six months, go through it first. And if at the end of six months if you really think you cannot take it, then you can go back to a branch’,” said Ms Nahariah, whose job requires her to toggle between computer applications to retrieve customer data and access internal bank services.
She was once so stressed out after making a mistake when serving a customer that she cried during her dinner break. “But I learnt from my mistake,” she added.
Ms Nahariah pressed on with the help of her team manager and younger colleagues, and said she has now got the hang of things. “Until now, they are still helping me because they know I’m not computer-savvy,” she added. “If I didn’t change, I’d be forever in a branch, I’d never have moved forward.”
Ms Theresa Phua, DBS Bank’s Singapore head of HR, said the bank has a multi-generational workforce with various learning needs and speeds, and it will extend greater support to employees like Ms Nahariah who face challenges in picking up new skills.
“Usually, this means that their team managers and colleagues play an important role in guiding them as well,” she added.
Away from banking, the hotel sector has also seen major technological shifts in recent years.
At Grand Park City Hall, a luxury hotel on Coleman Street, laundry attendant May Tan, 62, also underwent a big shift after her employer put in place an automated conveyor system in March 2017, where staff members retrieve their uniforms by tapping an employee card.
For 12 years previously, Madam Tan served staff members manually, by hanging up their clean uniforms on their assigned hangers and handing them over at the start of the day.
Among her tasks today, she scans the radio-frequency-identification-tagged uniforms after they return from washing, which automatically brings the assigned slot to her along a conveyor line.
Employees pick up their uniforms via a collection point after they are delivered via the conveyor.
At the outset, Mdm Tan said she was slightly apprehensive about coping with the new system, owing to the rather complex process of registering staff members and their uniform chip numbers.
But with the help of a training session and a step-by-step manual, she has overcome the initial difficulties. “Technology is good, it saves time and eliminates error,” Mdm Tan said. “It’s good to update ourselves.”
On the customer front, Grand Park City Hall also has a slew of technological features, including a mobile application that allows guests to check in and head straight to their rooms with a digital key.
But its general manager John Kockan stressed that there has been no reduction in manpower, and the intent is to redeploy resources to other customer-facing areas.
He said: “You have still got to have manpower. The hospitality business is a people business… (and you need) the human touch. You cannot be a hotelier without talking to your customers.”
For instance, some staff members at its front office have been reassigned as ambassadors to drum up awareness of its app and to tell guests about the convenience it brings.
As for laundry attendants such as Mdm Tan, the time savings are spent on additional roles, including managing the laundry of guests.
IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT TECH
With technology playing a big part in their operations, some firms are finding ways to broaden their workers’ duties or to redeploy them to roles that focus on areas like service experience.
At Spic & Span, the commercial cleaning company, the focus has shifted away from merely cleaning. Last year, it began equipping its workers with skills to perform handyman and plumbing services, by sending them for courses at training providers such as NTUC LearningHub.
Others are being trained to move into clean technology, including bio-fogging and indoor air-quality management.
Its founder Mr Chua said: “These are value-added services that I can share with my clients, so that I can tell them that you’re not only engaging a cleaning company. Any other (problems) that you have ... we may be able to solve … (since) we are already in the building.”
Facing intense competition from online booking platforms, travel agencies, too, have had to transform.
At Dynasty Travel, for instance, technology — including an iPad mini booking system, where tour itineraries and prices are just a few clicks away — has obviated the need for travel agents to sift through mountains of paper, in order to offer a quotation.
This has cut the time taken to complete a transaction from 45 minutes to 20 minutes, said Ms Alicia Seah, its public relations and communications director.
Ms Jennifer Mak, 40, who began as a staff member at the counters selling tour packages in 2007, has been reassigned to lead a new customer experience division. Her role includes training staff members in providing good service as well as attending to the needs of customers, including sending email or text messages to check on them during their trip. Ms Mak added:
The human touch is what people want now … We will still need staff to give that human touch to our customers.
At Chan Brothers Travel, another leading travel agency, staff members have been using a new iPad selling tool since last year to retrieve tour fares and show customers photos and videos of their destinations, boosting their confidence during the sales pitch, said its assistant customer service manager Tan Sheau Jing.
With less time spent on paperwork, head of customer service Reshel Chan said staff members can now focus more on building knowledge about new packages, providing detailed information and good service, and serving more customers. She added:
You have to be more knowledgeable than the customer. Otherwise, they won’t come here anymore.
While technology is front and centre, Chan Brothers Travel’s senior marketing communications manager Jeremiah Wong said the agency has not seen the need to trim manpower at its counters. Technology, he added, helps it to improve customer service, and is “not necessarily a competitor to our human workforce”.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
Economists spoken to largely agreed that no job is spared from technological disruption, though for the moment, certain roles demanding a high degree of human interaction could be at lower risk.
Mr Song Seng Wun, an economist with CIMB Private Bank, cited psychologists and social workers as roles where human intervention was still important and seeing a human face remains “reassuring”.
Nevertheless, it is unclear how far artificial intelligence could develop in the coming years to disrupt these roles, Mr Song said.
Another option for workers unable to adapt is to become private-hire car drivers for ride-hailing companies such as Grab, but this, acknowledged Mr Song, was “just moving sideways and not up” in terms of mobility.
Workers could also relocate to developing economies nearby with larger labour markets where their existing skills may still be useful, said Mr Song. However, this would be challenging for older, lower-skilled workers and those with families, he added.
Associate Professor Walter Theseira, a labour economist with the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said the number of jobs shielded from technological disruption is likely to grow, rather than shrink, at least in the medium term.
This is because technology — to the extent that it increases productivity — raises incomes, creating demand for personal services. Technology available in the medium term is also unlikely to be good at replacing unstructured personal services requiring some human insight or flexibility.
Personal concierge services are an example, where time-pressed individuals pay others to shop for them or walk their pets. Still, he acknowledged that the longer-term viability of such fairly low-skilled service jobs is in question and they “may not be a good substitute for workers who enjoyed higher-paying skilled jobs”.
Responding to queries, the Ministry of Manpower said that technology is transforming the way businesses operate and would have an impact on all sectors.
“However, in most instances, technology does not replace jobs, only job tasks. As routine job tasks are increasingly being automated or digitalised, there is potential for new jobs that will offer better prospects and salaries for workers to be created,” the ministry’s spokesman said.
He added that firms requiring help can tap the Lean Enterprise Development Scheme to transform their businesses and redesign jobs for workers. Under the scheme, they may also leverage the WorkPro initiative, which provides employers with funding support to create easier, safer and smarter jobs, so as to benefit older workers.
There are also employment support initiatives, such as the Professional Conversion and Place-and-Train Programmes, which support firms in hiring and re-skilling locals, he said.
Ultimately, labour economist Christos Sakellariou from the Nanyang Technological University said interventions facilitating re-employment and employability of those hit hardest by technology — such as older workers — would be a necessary ingredient.
Another approach is to keep identifying specific groups that need income support, to ensure workers earn a decent wage, said Associate Professor Sakellariou.
OCBC’s Ms Ling is of the view that many businesses here have not transformed fully to cater to older workers and a restructuring of business models and processes could make a difference.
This could include using technology as an aid, reworking workplaces to make them more age-friendly, adapting work processes, and allowing part-time arrangements and flexible hours, she said.
The Government, she suggested, could also take the lead by re-employing workers beyond age 67 where possible. Teachers and healthcare professionals would be a start, given that the education and healthcare industries are still growing.
“In addition, regulations can also potentially be toughened up against any ageist or discriminatory practices against older workers,” she said, suggesting having an avenue of recourse similar to statutory maternity protection for pregnant women.