SkillsFuture and English literacy for better employment and more inclusive society

By Catherine Ramos | Sunday, 01 May 2016

I love my foot masseur as she was my muscle-pain healer during the agonies of training for my first marathon. She is great at her work, friendly with an infectious smile. Seeing that she is a good worker with social skills and enabling work disposition, I thought that she could move further ahead in her career and perhaps she could try some other occupation that could possibly bring her more money. So I mentioned Singapore’s SkillsFuture national initiative, and the monetary support she could get out of it to pursue courses to help her gain new skills for a better career. I must admit that I was surprised that she was not as excited about SkillsFuture as I was. She said that going for courses required mastering reading materials in English which was beyond her proficiency level. Only then did it occur to me that she had trouble reading and comprehending English text. Belatedly, I realised that she had not completed basic education. This led me to see SkillsFuture through the eyes of illiterates and especially non-English speaking literates in Singapore.

With a 96.7 literacy rate, illiteracy is a meagre 3.3 percent. But if we look at the absolute number, this small percentage translates into more than 100,000 individuals who are illiterates; and that is not including the more than half a million aged 15 years and older who can only speak a language other than English, i.e., Chinese only, Malay only, Tamil only, and other non-official languages only (data from Singapore Census of Population 2010). The working-age illiterates according to Census 2010 data numbered about 45,132 (aged 15-64), and the working-age non-English literates aged 15-64 numbered about 393,302. This means that these residents who cannot speak English or illiterates are disadvantaged in the Singapore labour market where the main language used is English. The Singapore Workforce Development Agency has Workplace Literacy courses and these are heavily subsidised. The question is how this particular programme can be more successful in helping the illiterates and non-English literates in learning English for work, as SkillsFuture seems to miss them as a target group.

While SkillsFuture’s could be identified with workers having a post-secondary education, the Workfare scheme could be identified with low-wage workers (LWW). Many of the LWW could be described as those with low educational attainment. The Singapore Department of Statistics 2015 data showed a total of 474,800 residents aged 25-64 years old whose highest qualification was below secondary level. Workfare consists of the Workfare Income Supplement Scheme (WIS) and Workfare Training Support Scheme (WTS); the former provides cash to supplement the income, while the latter provides training subsidies.

But more than these government subsidies, how can the system together with the employers, assist these groups of Singaporeans to complete their basic education so that they can confidently take advantage of the many benefits of the SkillsFuture programs.

If the government can currently provide absentee-payroll of up to 90% of the basic hourly wage for certifiable courses on top of the training subsidies, I am sure the government would be able extend this generosity for completion of basic education, too. The key is to make it also attractive for employers to send their workers to complete basic education, and/or let them attend English classes. At the same time, the workers need also to see the short and long-term benefits of completing their basic education and acquisition of English language proficiency that will make them comfortable in reading English text.  The incentives to both employers and workers should be attractive enough for them to pursue these activities, and thus, make an impact in reducing the working-age illiterates, and working-age non-English literates. Putting extra effort in assisting workers to complete their basic education and become proficient in the English language for better employment in English-speaking Singapore is a way forward in the promotion of a more inclusive society because a just and inclusive society requires that the marginalised are not forgotten.


Catherine Ramos is Research Manager at the HEAD Foundation. Her research area focuses on skills and employability.

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