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What Next for Skills and Employment in Southeast Asia?

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Is the human capital model of development destined to disappoint? What will this mean for the role of education, skills and the future of work?

In seeking to foster debate on these issues, the HEAD Foundation convened a panel discussion on 26 January with prominent panellists Professor Philip Brown, Professor Hugh Lauder and Dr Gog Soon Joo. Experts in corporate strategies, skills and the future of work, the panellists provided insightful commentary on the nature of talent and the way industries should sustain employability in Singapore and the region at large.

Professor Brown (Cardiff University) highlighted the manner in which society moved from one period of technological change to another with better skills and jobs along the way, while Professor Lauder (University of Bath) focused on the challenges of the future and its ramifications. The latter pointed out that there is a greater opportunity for education (in particular the ASEAN region) because of the commitment in various ways for societies and nation states to develop their education system. He reasoned that there are issues in the form of credential inflation as not everyone needs an academic university education in the first instance. Thus, there should be some way in which people can move up the credential ladder without going through the university route.

He also explored the issue of the nature of ‘talent’ in Singapore. Being a ‘technician’ (in passing exams) does not guarantee being a good leader. In fact, enterprises are not looking into ‘technical’ qualifications but social skills.

Dr Gog Soon Joo of the Singapore Workforce Development raised comments and concerns on some of the premises about Professors Brown and Lauder’s book The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs, and Incomes. She raised the point that the two professors conducted their research for the book primarily by looking at multinational companies (MNCs) across the world. In Singapore’s context, the whole economy is not made up of MNCs alone; Singapore has “less than a thousand” MNCs while Small and Medium Enterprises make up about 190,000 firms, equating to over 70 per cent of the workforce.

Secondly, she contended that the whole argument and reference point of The Global Auction was based on the very traditional model of full-time employment for the sake of career promotion, and that workers are at the mercy of companies to decide how their skills are used.

Thirdly, Dr Gog disagreed with the book’s reference point that qualifications equate to high skills via a university education, a common mistake that companies make. “I think we have to rethink this very carefully,” she concluded.

Dr Gog argued that “the ‘average’ is over … We cannot have anyone to be just an average worker, because that would be very quickly expired.” In fact, we need to have ‘serial masters’ who professionalise in particular skill sets, able to synthesize and create. To this, Professor Lauder said otherwise that “If we are going to equip people for the next generation, we cannot have a narrow education for them.”

She also explained the future of work, future of skills and demand and the role of education skills and future work, and what they all mean on an individual, company and country level. Instead of seeing technology as a threat to employability, one should see the entrepreneurial opportunity brought about by digitalisation. We must question ourselves on whether the future of work must always be bureaucratic.

The discussion was galvanised by an elucidating exchange from the three panellists on, among other things, the nature of the “average” person in society, and whether the term should be rendered obsolete in the light of skill improvement.

Finally, a Question and Answer session was held; participants fielded queries such as whether informal learning is still relevant today, and how self-motivation can be inculcated for lifelong learning.

What Next for Skills and Employment in Southeast Asia?

Highlights "What Next for Skills and Employment in Southeast Asia?"