Speeches/Interviews

January 05, 2019

Opening Remarks by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education at Skillsfuture Advice @ North West – First Anniversary

1. Thank you for inviting me to open SkillsFuture Advice in 2017, and thank you for inviting me back after one year. We set some targets for the Community Development Councils (CDCs) – SSG set a target to reach out to 6,000 people through SkillsFuture Advice and we surpassed it with 10,000. Next year, the target is 8,000. Given that we surpassed it in 2018, I am sure we will surpass it in 2019 by an equal margin. All in all, as a national programme, through SkillsFuture Advice, we have reached out to 50,000 individuals across the island. I’m afraid that North West CDC isn’t the only one that surpassed the target. We have five CDCs, and every one surpassed the target. All these would not be possible without everyone’s support. On behalf of MOE and SkillsFuture Singapore, thank you.

2. We also launched another national programme – SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace. This was inspired by programmes in the past which were launched when Singapore’s economy was going through very big changes. We wanted to train all Singaporeans – no questions asked and with no means-testing – and we heavily subsidised the training as much as we could.

3. At one point, we were teaching service excellence skills. We have had outreach programmes all these years. Likewise, now, we feel everyone should learn how to operate in a digital workplace. You don’t have to be a computer expert, but at least know how to operate machines and computer programmes, and be comfortable in a highly automated and highly computerised environment. SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace has also been a very successful programme and we have trained 25, 000 Singaporeans. NTUC is one big partner – I attended one course where they trained taxi drivers, teaching them how to use apps to get customers. Taxi drivers are always on the road and sometimes they don’t even have time to eat. When they know how to use these apps, they will know how to order food and find places to eat – all these are basic skills.

4. The trajectory of SkillsFuture is a long one. Since the 1970s, we had the Skills Development Fund. Although SkillsFuture as a programme started less than five years ago in 2015, we have been training workers for many years before that. We just have different emphases for different parts of economic development.

5. In 2003, we started a statutory board called the Workforce Development Agency. Leo Yip was the first CEO, and I was the second CEO. During that time, there was a very exciting change in the way we trained workers. Prior to that, it was a lot about outreach to companies to encourage them to train their employees. The idea was that companies are best placed to understand operational needs, so they should decide their own training needs. But at that time, we started to get very strong feedback from the unions that going through employers to train workers was not enough. From the union’s perspective, you may go through a company to train workers; but sometimes, workers themselves would need access to training directly, because some may be unemployed. So we had very strong feedback from unions - that going through employers to train workers was not enough.

6. There are also increasingly more casual workers or freelancers, like taxi drivers, designers and artistes. Plus, even if you have an employer, some may be thinking of switching industries because of a changing economy, and may want to prepare themselves if their industries are vulnerable. Thus, it is not reasonable to expect employers to support the training of this group of workers who are looking to change industries. That was the emphasis at that time, from 2005 onwards. That is when we used the Lifelong Learning Endowment fund and we started various schemes to directly empower workers with training. How did we do that? There were two ways. One way is just like how we fund schools and hospitals – to subsidise fees. So the best way to empower individuals was to fund public services. We set up Continuing Education and Training centres. The first one was started in Toa Payoh for retail courses, set up through Nanyang Polytechnic. After that, we set up many others. You can find many of them now on campuses. The other way is to give every individual a voucher. With the voucher, you can go anywhere to upgrade your skills.

7. For many years, we preferred the first way over the second. With the first way, we can control the quality and we are assured that the training will be relevant. When we give the voucher, the person may use it for any kind of training and it may not be relevant and may not help with the individual’s employability. For more than 10 years, we focused on subsidising the supply, and we held back on giving the voucher. It was only until 2015, when we felt that the supply was strong enough – there was good training out there and the industry was strong enough, that we felt it was time to give everyone the voucher. So we had the SkillsFuture Credit. It was part of the Budget announcement that year.

8. We know there is a risk – when you have a voucher and you go shopping, sometimes people shop for the wrong things. But we felt it was the right time, and that the supply was good enough. Most people use the credit to learn new skills. Some people may say that it could be used to learn flower arrangement or to learn Korean, but a great majority use it to learn IT, workplace safety, F&B skills like cooking or service skills. These are the top skills people learn.

9. Once we decided on giving the credit, we have to trust that people will use it honestly. We must also accept that there will be some abuse. I’m glad to say that SkillsFuture Singapore has worked with GovTech, to employ AI with a real-life element to catch abuse of applications. I hope we continue to stay ahead of the crooks. SSG has a hotline for you to call if you suspect abuse, and they will investigate it on the ground. We have administrative powers, so you don’t have to go to court and go through tedious processes when reporting the abuse. We can immediately remove their licenses and withdraw approval.

10. That is how we have evolved. There always needs to be a balance – to reach out to employees through employers, and at the same time, to empower workers to also upgrade their own skills.

11. For this coming Budget, I saw that Minister Heng Swee Keat mentioned that he is focusing on economic transformation, helping companies cope with economic transformation, focusing especially on SMEs. SSG and MOE will support this. It is important - when we look at SMEs, they make up 99% of all our enterprises, they hire about 65% of all employees, but I think there is still room for SMEs to be more productive. Therefore, we will see how we can use SkillsFuture as a national movement to help upgrade our SMEs. That is something MOF has been working on. I thought it was useful to update on the journey so far, at the one-year anniversary of SkillsFuture Advice. There’s a lot more we need to do – please continue to support the CDCs in their work.

12. Thank you.