IN August, things were looking bleak. The pandemic was battering workers with job losses and wage cuts. Resident unemployment rose to 4.6 per cent, the highest in over a decade. That same month, 36-year-old Gavin Ng (not his real name)* landed the best job of his life: as a full stack developer in a promising tech startup, building augmented reality technology. “Personally,” he says, “I feel more secure than ever. If the ship goes down, I have a lifeboat. I’m daily building skills that are in demand.”
As Covid-19 took a sledgehammer to the economy, tech prospects were looking brighter than ever. With stay-home restrictions and remote working in place, more users flocked online and more companies went digital. As 2020 closed on a global recession, the S&P 500’s information technology sector had surged 44 per cent on the year, according to an S&P Global report.
In Singapore, the infocomm and technology (ICT) sector has also proven a bright spot. As at November, the Ministry of Manpower reports strong hiring demand in the sector, with more than 12,000 job openings available. Most (95 per cent) are for professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs).
The big question: how many Singaporeans qualify?
The golden apple, out of reach?
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Ben Leong, associate professor of computer science at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is feeling pessimistic. He’s confident his students will do well, with demand booming for their skills; but worries for the rest.
Increasingly, Prof Leong sees the future economy comprising haves and have-nots, divided by access to jobs. Automation is making production more efficient, which could mean a deficit of higher-paying jobs to go around. And while good jobs abound in ICT, the skills and capability gap is difficult to overcome.
“Computer systems are becoming bigger and more complex. While we have access to better tools, the work is becoming increasingly sophisticated,” says Prof Leong. “Mastering the craft requires both aptitude and training,” he adds, drawing comparisons with doctoring and lawyering. “Gone are the days you can learn coding in your garage. One also needs genuine interest to have career longevity in the profession.”
Gavin is a rare case of a self-taught programmer. He believes he’s always had the aptitude, but thinks the government could have done much more, and much earlier, to support him with opportunities to develop.
As a youth, Gavin had always dabbled in coding. But after the dot.com crash, his younger self dismissed it as a means to make a living. He chose mathematics instead, at a top overseas university. It cost his parents most of their lifetime savings to send him there.
Financially stressed, he struggled academically. In 2009, he graduated with second-lower honours – straight into the global financial crisis. Unable to find a job, he started – and dropped out of – a PhD. He spent six years as a teaching assistant, until he was hit by downsizing in 2017.
For six months, he applied to hundreds of employers. He often never heard back, or received auto-generated e-mail replies. Finally, thanks to a referral, he caught a break as an IT systems analyst. This gave his CV a boost, helping him clinch his current job. To qualify, he built a proof-of-concept for a facial recognition algorithm over the span of a weekend.
For Gavin, success is bittersweet. It comes only after years of underemployment, rejection, and feeling disenfranchised from the golden age of technology. All his life, he had felt just behind the curve: graduating into a recession, sandwiched between tech booms, too old and late for the Smart Nation vision. Tech was booming, but he didn’t seem any better off.
Gavin also thinks immigration contributed to his woes. Until recent reforms, he thinks employers were able to tap on lower-cost foreign workers as a first resort. “Our country cries for talent, and yet no one needed it enough to take a chance on me until my current job,” he says.
“Those are lost years. I felt very unhappy, because I just needed an opportunity. You’re not giving me a chance, and you’re not hungry enough to give me the chance.
“Employers and the government,” he muses, “They say, ‘We have no talent’. But I’m just one step away.”
For mid-career PMETs, the heat is on
Prior to Covid-19, professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) were consistently accounting for the bulk of locals retrenched – over seven in 10 as at end-2019, significantly higher than their resident workforce share of about 56 per cent.
Some are concerned this points to a “hollowing out” of jobs, as increasingly sophisticated automation hits mid-skilled roles. And unlike Gavin, the vast majority of workers displaced from such roles will never be able to build cutting-edge technology skills. Yet if they don’t skill up, the only way from here may be down.
With Covid-19’s onset, new shifts may only add to PMETs’ woes. One trend to watch is remote working – including across borders, which could blunt domestic labour regulations, like quotas and minimum salary requirements. “Working from home is great for jobs that don’t require a physical presence,” says Prof Leong. “And if I don’t see you anyway, why do I need you in Singapore?”
These concerns are not far-fetched. Charles Ferguson, Asia-Pacific general manager of Globalization Partners, says his company helps clients hire in-situ talent around the world. They don’t need to set up an international entity in the hiring market. Their employees never need an air ticket or visa.
Last year, Globalization Partners recorded 70 per cent growth in new customers, and 700 per cent growth in lead generation demand.
Should Singaporeans be afraid? “Fear is useless,” says Mr Ferguson candidly. “Get over it.” Being afraid of becoming irrelevant, he adds, is like being afraid of a medical check-up. It doesn’t change the facts.
Instead, Mr Ferguson – who is proudly Singaporean – thinks the country must do more to prepare its citizens. “The national emergency right now is not the pandemic; it’s the future of the economy,” he says. “We need to act with the same level of urgency. Hold career nights at community centres, set up booths in MRT stations. We’ve got to be proactive on this.”
Big tech is wading in
It’s not like Singapore is starting from scratch.
In 2016, the Tech Skills Accelerator programme (TeSA) was launched as the national skilling movement for tech jobs. TeSA includes courses for mid-careers without relevant experience, to train the likes of software developers, data analysts and UX designers.
Erina Tan, 49, has benefited from the scheme. The digital marketing manager used to push products through print ads and trade fairs. Then, these dried up. When her employer, Y3 Technologies, said TeSA training was available, she signed up for a module at NUS. Being older than most of her course-mates, she felt she took longer to learn. But she got the hang of things, and now uses tools like Figma to prototype websites.
“People of my age need to always be open,” Ms Tan reflects. “The world is going to move, with or without us. You have to stay relevant in your society, or you will be left behind.”
Between April 2016 and September 2020, TeSA placed over 7,000 Singaporeans into tech jobs – not insignificant, but not nearly enough to satiate the economy’s snowballing appetite for such workers.
As of last June, the government estimates the ICT sector needs 60,000 additional professionals over the next three years – far more than the 2,800 infocomm graduates entering the workforce each year, and certainly more than the number of Singaporeans being converted into tech jobs under TeSA.
Then, around the midpoint of last year, something curious began to happen. Covid-19 was sending the labour market into a tailspin – presenting, perhaps, a silver lining of opportunity to train and restructure at scale. In parallel, government agencies seem to have gone into overdrive, aggressively courting large companies to do their part.
Suddenly, big tech was in the game.
In July, Google launched a “Skills Ignition SG” programme for up to 3,000 local job seekers, including courses in digital marketing and cloud technology for up to 2,400 mid-careers. In September, IBM launched “i.am-vitalize” to train 800 mid-careers in artificial intelligence and cloud technology. Both Google and IBM’s courses are full-time, certifiable, and six months in duration.
In November, SAP partnered Temasek Polytechnic to announce seven-month courses in accounting, data science and predictive analytics, for over 500 mid-careers. In December, Microsoft teamed up with McKinsey-founded non-profit Generation to launch #GetReadySG: a three-month learning “boot camp” followed by a six-month apprenticeship with a partner employer.
Large local employers are also joining in. Homegrown Sea Ltd has said it will hire and train 500 Singaporeans over the next two years, including 100 mid-careers. DBS, Singtel and Integrated Health Information Systems are among 10 companies to have collectively offered 500 training places for Singaporeans aged 40 and above.
Susan Cheong, DBS’s group head for talent acquisition, says the pace has picked up of late. Since 2016, DBS has trained about 1,200 mid-career workers through professional conversion programmes. This year alone, they have identified a further 4,300 employees for upskilling or re-skilling – a third of their 12,000-strong workforce.
“Covid-19 has disrupted entire industries,” says Ms Cheong. “We all have to speed up our efforts.”
At least three things are noteworthy about this new generation of skilling programmes.
The first is the symbolic role of big tech. For years now, Singapore has been a strategic location for a number of these companies, and a part of their growth story. IBM opened its first office here in 1952, while Google and Microsoft entered in 2007-08. This is the first time these companies are training Singaporeans themselves, at such a scale, across the ecosystem.
This seems a unique opportunity to signal corporate integration in the Singapore community. It also sends a powerful message that big tech is not the enemy – a message not to be taken for granted, in a time of growing worldwide concern about inequalities.
The second is the practical advantages that come with such companies’ resources and reputations. As industry leaders, one expects their training to be industry-relevant. Their certifications carry weight in the job market, and they have networks to pull in companies to offer meaningful apprenticeships where they occur.
Skills Ignition SG, for example, offers a “place-and-train” track with three months of certified training, followed by six months of salaried work. Ben King, Google Singapore’s country director, says over 170 trainees have been placed in Google and partner companies, including reputable names like Sephora, Airbnb and Spotify. Over two dozen companies have come on board, and Google is searching for more.**
It is also promising that Microsoft’s #GetReadySG collaboration with Generation includes job matching for eligible candidates upon graduation. This goes beyond a one-off course or company attachment. Generation has experience running similar skilling programmes around the world, and reports good employment outcomes among its nearly 40,000 graduates.
The third is the amount of financial support that individuals are receiving to upgrade their skills full-time. Especially generous is the allowance offered under the company training track of the SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways Programme. Individuals in full-time courses conducted by “market-leading” companies (including the ones by Google, Microsoft, SAP and IBM) receive S$1,500 monthly.
For reference, that’s higher than the minimum wage of S$1,300 proposed and hotly debated in Parliament last year – and to study, not work, full-time. This significantly alleviates the opportunity cost of full-time learning, and could help nudge hesitant mid-careers to take the plunge.
No panacea, but necessity
When I ask Gavin what he thinks of these developments, his answer is lukewarm. “They’re better than nothing, but I wonder about their effectiveness. They seem to have a low barrier to entry, and may be mere lip service.”
Gavin is blunt, but he has a point. Some realism is in order. Where employers are concerned, mid-career conversions alone will not resolve their tech crunch woes. Thousands of training places and traineeships are being rolled out, but the industry needs tens of thousands.
Besides sheer numbers, quality also matters. Technology is increasingly complex, and fast-changing; a single crash course will not suffice. For the same reasons, workers who take up these programmes would be well advised to enter with measured expectations.
Still, different actors – government, employers, workers and society – have good reasons to want this gambit to pay off. The employment outcomes of these programmes should be closely monitored, and if they work, they should be sustained and scaled. If not, we need stronger and new options. We are running out of time.
None of us can afford for change to leave our community behind.
*Gavin’s name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.
** Google invites companies interested in offering job placements to reach out at [email protected].