“Nearly half of existing university degrees could be obsolete within a decade”,said one Australian headline.
“Your college degree is worthless”,read an American study.
Across the world, students are concerned about the relevance of their papers in a fast evolving world. “Some university leaders estimate that around 40 per cent of existing degrees will soon be obsolete, which may mean institutions will lose their ‘cash cows’ and be forced into specialisation paths they may have not chosen”, reported professional services EY in their report “University of the Future”.
A degree used to guarantee strong earning powers, but this is quickly eroding.There are more graduates entering the workforce and the edge they used to command has dulled. To deal with this problem, Singapore is encouraging employers to placing stronger emphasis on skills development and training.
The trouble with academic training alone, is that people chase the paper for its own sake. They are not as concerned with the training rigour that accompanies it. Worse if they look for “short-cut” type papers, those that grant an award within a year or two.
However, this article does not attempt to belittle the academic qualification. There is still an important place and role for these papers and institutions, although it is less about qualifications but more on the intellectual and mental training a person acquires in a diploma or degree program.
Desmond Choo, Director of Industry Transformation and Productivity observes two changes in the education landscape. “First, students are a lot more focused on the quality of education that they go through. Secondly, the elements of applied learning, internship and attachments are the focus rather than a mere paper-chase that may not be applicable in their careers”.
But what about employers? Are Singaporean employers enlightened to the merits of skill based hiring? Or are we still obsessed with papers?
“There is an observable shift towards skill based hiring. This is especially evident in companies participating in the Learn and Earn program. Hiring requirements have changed quite a bit to reflect this change”, said Choo.
It is reported that workers whom are more willing to change, adapt or even adopt new skills will not just be better paid, but they will be more likely to be hired into their next jobs based on these skills rather than academic qualifications.
One example is provided by the Committee for Future Economy. Yang Kee Logistics, a home-grown logistics and warehousing company in Singapore was reported to have dedicated itself to skills-based recruitment. Furthermore, the company runs its own teaching academy, which provides training for employees on core operational skills they need in the supply chain industry.
There are also observable trends towards applied learning. This means that training ought to be industry oriented: learning is based on real, relevant and applicable skills.
At the May Day Rally of 2017, the Prime Minister gave the example of a book binder in Mohamed Sultan. With the binding business in decline, the company moved their business model to making artisan book binding. Employees who are able to adapt their skills to this new business, such as Ms. Tan Buay Heng had a new lease of career – she is now a craftsman, personalising leather notebooks for customers, conducting workshops and training younger craftsmen.
The process of acquiring new skills expands an individual’s creativity and problem solving. It was through such learning that Singapore birthed entrepreneurs that grew small cake shops, chocolate shops, supply chain solutions and even high tech products from humble beginnings to multi-national businesses.
Moreover, the nature of work is ever changing.
In a lot of jobs, the transformation is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Even in the world of coding, for example. This field has been around for ages, but it is only in the past decade or two that it had taken on greater significance. Fields such as artificial intelligence grew out of this.
The cashier tagging a product for example, is now working with electronic tagging. From having to serve at the checkout counter, he can help four to six customers at a time at the self-check out kiosks.
Because of this evolutionary change, there is a need to keep workers up to date with the latest trends and skills.
To do this, we have large scale courses, such as the Skills Future Digital Workshop which is currently being promoted by the labour movement. These critical courses help workers appreciate the change that is happening around them. They can then progress to other course thereafter. This is one way how the labour movement is transforming industries: through helping workers strengthen their skills.
A necessary side effect of progress and innovation is that old, unproductive and inefficient products, services, methods and the jobs that go with them will disappear. This is creative destruction and is generally good for society. However, governments and labour movements ought to protect and adapt workers to these changes and cycles.
Traditional academic training has its role but will not be much of a differentiating factor when it comes to employment and salaries. It is skills and attitudes that will lead this and it will be interesting to observe how Singaporeans will adapt to these changes.