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Ong Ye Kung: Singapore needs mindset change; skills are as important as university education

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With the number of degree holders growing in the nation, Singapore must undergo a perspective shift in believing that a university degree and corporate life are the only parameters of success. Developing skills are just as important for the future.

In Singapore, by 2017 the labour force comprised of 35.7 percent of people who are degree holders. This is an increase of over ten percent in the last ten years, since the figure was at 23.3 percent in 2007. Like many of its Asian neighbours, there is a possibility that Singapore will soon have more graduates than jobs that are available to them, and suited to their level of education. Along with a lack of jobs is the potential for discontent that could bring instability to the country.

Singapore has endeavored to address this with SkillsFuture, an initiative that started in 2015 to focus on skills training being recognized as having the same level of importance as a university degree.

However, this initiative has faced a steep challenge, because like many other Asian nations, in Singapore the mindset that one needs a university degree to guarantee success still prevails. Many people desire to take a corporate path as their chosen career.

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According to Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, Singapore needs to redefine it’s formula for career success—to adopt a multi-pronged approach instead of believing that there are just two pathways—academic or skills.

He said, “Whatever qualifications you attained, you are not made for life. The truth is, whichever path you choose in Singapore, you still have to learn skills and achieve mastery through a lifelong process. Name me a job that does not require any artistry or craftsmanship, there’s very few now. There’s really no pure manager. If you’re a pure manager, life is quite sad. What do you manage?”

Mr. Ong feels that hard work is the key to success, no matter which path you take to prepare for your career, and that this needs to begin even in the earliest years.

“There’s no short cut. We all have to work really hard to be very good at what we’re doing.… Don’t just close your mind to all possibilities and say there’s only one path to success and that’s an academic degree…“We need different qualifications, different degrees, to be attained at different stages of our lives.”

Mr. Ong once said that it is possible that a future Prime Minister of Singapore could be a non-university graduate.

He also encouraged young people not too switch from one job to another, but to stick at a certain one until they gain mastery, making them hard to replace by a computer or another kind of artificial intelligence.

However, the reality is that more jobs are being replaced by technology, including careers in the financial sector. Job obsolescence is happening faster than ever, making re-skilling crucial as people shift from one aspect of their field to another. This is what’s known as “second-skilling,” or training for another field while still working in one’s original placement. Singapore first adopted this principle in the late 1990’s, when the financial crisis struck Asia.

Fortunately, SkillsFuture has been seeing traction, as more and more people are availing of their S$500 SkillsFuture credit for training. Almost 300,000 Singaporeans have enrolled in SkillsFuture since it started. This has been reflected in the rate of training participation, with the training rate of current labor force at 47.9 percent in 2017. In the previous year it was only at 42 percent.

Though changing mindsets can take time, it looks like it has already begun.

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