A War for Talent: Economic Restructuring and the Global Auction of Jobs

A War for Talent: Economic Restructuring and the Global Auction of Jobs

In the age of globalisation and the war on talent, can education solve everything? What can robots not do that workers can capitalise on to secure their jobs? These were just some of the questions explored at the Closed-Door Discussion on Economic Restructuring and the Global Auction of Jobs, jointly organised by the HEAD Foundation and the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

Held at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on 22nd January, the discussion featured Professor Philip Brown, Distinguished Research Professor at the School of Social Sciences in Cardiff University, and Professor Hugh Lauder, Professor of Education and Political Economy at the University of Bath. Participants included public servants, business leaders, academics and senior correspondents. Mr Manu Bhaskaran, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at IPS, moderated the session.

Professor Brown began by observing the manner in which society moved from one period of technological change to another, getting better skills and jobs along the way. He also identified 5 key global trends that captured the changing nature of the global economy; namely, the globalisation of higher education, the quality-cost revolution, the rise of Digital Taylorism, the ‘war for talent,’ and the race to social inequality.

Furthermore, the economic revolution is not simply a “revolution in creative development” but also one of standardisation. “What we have to do as academics and policymakers is to try to envisage our policy and … get an understanding of what’s going on in our dynamic economy,” said Professor Brown.

In the ‘war for talent,’ the very nature of talent management becomes important when the workforce gets stratified; the ‘talent cadre’ seems to be restricted to small numbers of universities that are more global instead of being westernised. In other words, “being good is no longer good enough.” Even a massive expansion of education invariably leads to massive expansion of inequality.

Professor Brown raised the question of whether other countries in the region could emulate Singapore as a Southeast Asian success story. Singapore was able to use the early stages of globalisation as a way of attracting low cost jobs and was able to move up the global value chain. Having avoided the ‘middle-income trap,’ Singapore is one of the most economically successful economies in the world, with a GDP per capita significantly higher than that of the US.
Professor Lauder zeroed in on the challenges of the future and its implications in the second part of the discussion. One needs to look at the ways in which knowledge works, since theories at large tend to fail when confronted with the realities of the world. “The market as we now know cannot deliver what we would like in a socially desirable way,” he said.
Countries like Singapore can utilise the quality-cost equation as an opportunity to sustain employability. When competition is intense, the ability to innovate in holding costs down and yet raise quality becomes an advantage, especially for skilled workers. For developing countries however, it is a matter of what kind of education people need in order to move up global value chains.

Education may not necessarily produce enough workers for the level of technological advancement. In segmenting knowledge work, there lies the risk of a hollowing-out of technical, managerial and associate professional jobs that are defined below the ‘talent radar.’

In foreseeing the future of skills and employment, Professor Lauder recognised that high skills may not equate to talent, which may lead to a danger of a Singapore talent deficit given that job mismatches may not just be a technical but a social factor.

We need to start rethinking the education system where more “people with permission to think” should be nurtured, and constant progression should remain a meaningful prospect for social mobility. The question then remains as to whether the state can reinvent vocational education in hard and soft skills, while breaking out of the income traps using technological improvements.

A Question and Answer session was held afterwards on salient issues defining what is “talent” to the relevance of the manufacturing industry in driving innovation.

In his final remarks, Professor Brown reflected on the long-term context of state development, understanding changes and how we can progressively respond to those changes collectively, which would determine the way people will live their lives in the future.

Professor Lauder concluded that “there is a question about how we do smart control and smart regulation on labour,” and the onus is on the state to assert a framework which makes them possible.

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