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As COVID-19 speeds up automation, what does the future hold for non-tech job seekers?

As COVID-19 speeds up automation, what does the future hold for non-tech job seekers?

Two ShopBack employees looking through lines of code. Alex Teo, who leads the company's people experience team, said that he thinks most employees will need some basic level of coding or data analysis skills. (Photo: ShopBack)

SINGAPORE: Technology - it is one of the few sectors still hiring despite the COVID-19 economic fallout; it is what has enabled many employees to work from home amid the pandemic; it could also displace many jobs over the next few years. 

According to the World Economic Forum in its latest Future of Jobs report released in October, half of the businesses surveyed plan to accelerate the automation of jobs in their companies.

Forty-three per cent indicated that they are set to reduce their workforce over the next few years due to technology integration, while 34 per cent said they plan to expand their workforce for the same reason.

"By 2025, the time spent on current tasks at work by humans and machines will be equal," said the WEF report. 

READ: COVID-19 pandemic speeds labour shift from humans to robots, WEF survey finds

Technology-based jobs populate the top 20 in a list of emerging jobs, from data analysts to robotics engineers. Those that are increasingly redundant include accountants, human resource specialists and relationship managers. 

The report is based on a survey of senior management leaders from nearly 300 companies worldwide - including 29 with operations in Singapore. Data was collected between January and September this year. 

Findings from the World Economic Forum's Future of Job's 2020 report on the top 20 emerging and declining jobs.

So in a future where technology dominates work processes, what do employment prospects look like for people who cannot tell the difference between Python and Java? 

It is not necessary for most people to master coding or learn to build software, tech industry players and recruitment experts told CNA, although they noted that it is important to be able to use the latest technological tools that relate to an employee's job function.

Even in a technology firm, non-tech roles like public relations and product design executives will still be necessary in the future - and employees are required to have strong communication skills or a good eye, said Mr Alex Teo, the people experience and government relations lead at online cashback platform ShopBack. It has 150 employees in Singapore and about 500 in nine territories.

Even then, some basic level of coding or data analysis might be required of most of its employees going forward, he said. For example, his finance and marketing teams need to know programming language to enable them to pull out information about transactions or create email newsletters.

“So knowledge of those coding languages … I think going forward. That may be the expectation for (most people),” Mr Teo said. 

READ: Singapore’s jobless rate climbs to 3.6%; more than 20,000 retrenched year-to-date

Similarly, co-founder of digital wealth manager Stashaway Michele Ferrario said many roles in the company do not need technical know-how, such as those in marketing, compliance and client engagement. 

Digital tools these departments use, like customer relationship management systems, have also become more user-friendly and intuitive over the years, he added.

Nonetheless, there are business development or strategy positions where data analysis is required and “being able to code will make you faster”, he said.

Stashaway currently has around 130 employees across five territories, with more than half of them in Singapore. Headcount is likely to increase to 200 plus or more than 300 in the next few years, Mr Ferrario said.

Rather than focus on becoming a computing expert, workers should put their energy into finding out how technology will affect their roles and learn to use the latest digital tools, industry players said. 

READ: Companies hunt for talent as Singapore tech sector continues to grow

“Tech jobs do not always mean coding or software development. There is a range of jobs in tech, such as product management, digital marketing, data analytics, user experience design (and more),” said Ms Aziza Sheerin, the Asia senior regional director of General Assembly, an educational organisation that runs classes in technology. 

“What is important is for people to understand how to leverage tech in their roles now,” she said.

General Assembly's senior regional director of Asia Aziza Sheerin. (Photo: General Assembly)

“I think tech is an enabler, but it doesn't really mean that you have to be a hardcore technical person … the key message is the ability to adapt and change,” said Mr Eric Heung, a manager of supply chain and procurement at recruitment firm Robert Walters. He cited the example of marketing executives who were used to print advertising strategies having to now grasp the idea of social media campaigns. 

“If they are not interested in tech, they should still think about how is technology going to change their function, what they're doing, or their industry,” he said. 

Ms Feon Ang, LinkedIn’s Asia Pacific vice-president of talent and learning solutions, said the best way to future-proof yourself is to pick up both technical skills and “soft skills” - interpersonal skills related to traits like creativity and persuasiveness.

“Most jobs today require professionals today to possess basic digital skills and we know there will also be demand for professionals with deeper technical skills as businesses adapt to the changing environment,” she said, referring to how COVID-19 has led to a working environment heavily reliant on technology. 

READ: Singapore can be 'a more digital, more resilient advanced manufacturing base' for the world: DPM Heng

READ: Challenging job-hunting landscape as recruitment agencies see fewer vacancies and more applications

Data collected by LinkedIn from its users found that between June and August, software engineers were most in demand in Singapore, based on the proportion of hires with this job title. And among the top three most important skills was the ability to use coding languages JavaScript or Java. 

To support such roles, Ms Ang said there will be a need for professionals who are able to conduct collaboration and manage teams across a digital space, which is where the “soft skills” come in. 


Even before the pandemic hit, some in Singapore have jumped on the coding bandwagon.

Mr Koh Han Seng enrolled in SG Code Campus in March to learn how to use Python and is now in the next level of classes diving into data analytics. 

Apart from using his programming expertise to invest in the stock market, the 52-year-old said he took up the courses as he plans to work as a business consultant. The potential new role, he believes, will require him to scrutinise and sort through data. 

Ms Siti Herda Nuryani Nasir, a former customer service officer with Singapore Airlines, got herself into General Assembly’s software engineering course in March last year as a way of switching careers. 

Like Mr Koh, Ms Nuryani said it was a steep learning curve, jumping into studying something so technical and completely new to her.

What helped to keep them going, they said, was the motivation to learn. 

“I have always been interested in programming, (so) I enjoyed all the time I put into practising and learning more about it,” said Ms Nuryani, who is now a junior software engineer at start-up Online Pajak. “I think being able to enjoy what you are going to do most of your time is also really important.”

Previously a customer service officer with Singapore Airlines, Siti Herda Nuryani Nasir is now a junior software engineer at start-up Online Pajak. (Photo: Siti Herda Nuryani Nasir)

Representatives from the schools said it is possible for anyone to become a coder or software developer. 

Although having a science, engineering or mathematics background does give students a leg up in the classroom, General Assembly’s Ms Sheerin pointed out that she has seen students from non-technical backgrounds graduate and find a job after that. 

One of them was a cabin crew member who studied software engineering and is now a developer at a bank; another moved from being an architect to a user experience designer. 

Founder of SG Code Campus Ian Choo agreed that while being more math or science-inclined is helpful in some areas of technology, like machine learning or data science, the outcomes of its three-month boot camps in other aspects like mobile or Web programming is proof that it is possible for anyone to make the switch.

A class conducted by SG Code Campus in February this year. (Photo: SG Code Campus)

“Both competency and interest can definitely be nurtured,” said Ms Sheerin. What her five years at General Assembly have shown is that students need to have enough motivation to see through their training long enough to gain competency, she added.

There is no “cookie-cutter approach” to developing an interest in technology, but taking a broader view of hobbies helps, she said, noting that some people who were very much into playing video games decided they want to build games themselves, while others who were active in community service wanted to figure out how to apply technology to their work. 

“I see interest as (something that can be developed) because it’s something that’s within the control of the instructor,” said Mr Choo. “I think it really boils down to - are you convinced that it is useful. And then if you are convinced that it is useful, is it worth your time? And in the process of learning it, do you find it fun?”

Source: CNA/rp(gs)


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