Speeches/Interviews

July 29, 2020

Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Education, at Skillsfuture@NTU, at the ARC (Learning Hub North) Lecture Theatre, Nanyang Technological University

1. I'm very happy to join you this morning for this SkillsFuture @ NTU event. This is my second day of work at MOE, and it's my first official event since joining MOE. I'm very glad it's a SkillsFuture event, taking place as part of our SkillsFuture month.

2. It underscores the importance that we place on lifelong learning and the expanded scope of MOE's work in pursuing this very important, national SkillsFuture agenda.

3. The concept of lifelong learning, of course, is not new. I think it's a reality for all of us who have been working. I recall my own experience when I started working in 1997. I was then fresh out of college, and as most fresh graduates are, was brimming with confidence, and thought I knew everything there was to know about Economics. Then the Financial Crisis struck; one of my first assignments was to put up a paper to my bosses to assess the impact of the crisis on the regional economies, and the implications for Singapore. I remember thinking, "How do I even begin?" nothing that I learned in school prepared me for such an assignment, and I realised then how big a gap there was from my textbook understanding of Economics, and the way things work in the real world. So I had to scramble, learn quickly and plug the many gaps in my knowledge.

4. Since that experience, it has been a journey of continuous learning because there are many gaps in my knowledge that I continue to plug to this very day. For example, it would include keeping up to date on new developments in the areas of work that I'm looking at. It also includes, over the course of my career, picking up important new soft skills, like learning how to present better, how to write policy papers, how to present technical information to a non-technical audience. And there is an art to this that you can develop and do better as a young Economist. I learned very quickly that how you present data and charts is quite important, and I took a lot of time and effort to improve my skills in doing these things. So I improved and learned, and after some time, even my colleagues were coming up to me and asking for my help because they knew that I was good at doing this. So the idea of lifelong learning applies to all of us; all of us must have experienced it in our own course of work and we have embraced it as part of continuous learning.

5. But the impetus for doing so has certainly accelerated with the COVID-19 outbreak, because the pace of change has accelerated. Businesses are now quickly transforming their operations by adopting digital technologies and automation, and there is a fundamental rethinking of global networks and supply chains for greater resilience, especially for essential goods, like food and medical supplies. Consumers too are changing their behaviours and spending patterns, placing more emphasis on safety, speed and convenience.

6. All of these changes will affect the nature of jobs in the future economy. Existing jobs may change, and new jobs will emerge, while some industries and companies will undergo painful adjustments. And here in Singapore, we have to be prepared for the outlook to worsen over the coming months. As we keep reminding everyone, the pandemic is far from over, and you can see countries all over the world facing rolling waves of infection - some second- some third waves. Companies in this very difficult situation are understandably very cautious about hiring, so our immediate priority is to provide support to viable firms so that they can bring forward their hiring and create jobs for Singaporeans. And if that's not possible we will do our very best to accelerate traineeship positions and training opportunities, so that even during this difficult period, Singaporeans can make use of the opportunities to upscale and reskill themselves. Importantly, we will continue to steer our economy through the crisis and emerge stronger from it, and that means moving into new areas of growth but possibly areas of future growth, which will enable us to create more good jobs for Singaporeans over time.

7. What does this means for our students and graduating class of 2020? It means learning does not stop when you graduate; it means that getting a paper qualification is not the end-point; rather it's the beginning of a lifelong journey of learning and relearning. This applies to students, it applies to fresh graduates, and is certainly applies to everyone who is presently in the workforce.

8. I know this is a tough period for jobseekers, especially for our fresh graduates who are now looking to enter the workforce. We understand your concerns, and I want to assure all of you that we are here to help.

9. Our Career Centres in the Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) will continue to provide career guidance and assistance to fresh graduates entering the workforce, and they have stepped up their efforts. The support includes sourcing for job openings from industry partners, organising career fairs, and using online outreach and counselling tools.

10. For example, NTU organised three large-scale virtual career fairs over the last five months, with the support of over 400 companies with job opportunities. The NUS Centre for Future-ready Graduates launched a Career Advancement Webinar Series to help more than 3,000 students and fresh graduates address challenges in the current employment landscape. At Republic Polytechnic, the Education and Career Guidance Counsellors have adopted e-counselling sessions for graduates, to allow students to be supported remotely. These are just some examples of how our IHLs – be it ITE, polytechnic, or universities – are adjusting to the new scenario and new conditions.

11. We have also created attachment opportunities for fresh graduates through the SGUnited Traineeships programme. These traineeships help graduates develop their skills professionally during the current economic crisis, and equip them with valuable industry experience, while receiving a stipend for the duration of the programme.

12. Given the economic uncertainties, some may also choose to delay their entry into the job market and use this time to continue building up their skills. So the IHLs are also offering their graduates up to four free Continuing Education and Training (CET) modules. These CET modules can be "stacked" into micro-credentials or certificates issued by the Autonomous Universities (AUs), to recognise the skills acquired by our graduates. These skills will enable our graduates to better access a wider range of jobs. For example, the NTU schools and NIE have packaged 27 certificates under this programme, out of which seven are MiniMasters™ Certificate programmes. These cover useful areas such as business analytics, marketing management, and special education. These programmes will support the NTU and NIE Class of 2020 to pick up additional skills to complement the competencies acquired in their undergraduate years. The course credits earned from a MiniMasters™ programme will also count towards the requirements for a full Master's degree, should graduates wish to pursue one at a later date.

13. All of these examples underscore the important role that our IHLs play in reskilling and upskilling every Singaporean. In the past the IHLs saw their role primarily as one of being confined to pre-employment training (PET), but that attitude and mindset has changed. Our IHLs now have significantly expanded their CET capacity, and they have developed new capacities to deliver training that is valued by workers and employers, including in new and emerging sectors.

14. Today, all of our IHLs have a heavy responsibility as a key pillar of the CET ecosystem. They continue to ramp up their range of CET programmes, with a sustained emphasis on industry relevance and teaching quality. I would like to thank all our colleagues at the IHLs for their hard work, and encourage everyone to continue to forge ahead to support our fresh graduates, alumni and all Singaporeans in this journey of lifelong learning and continuing education.

15. As businesses evolve, new industries will also emerge, and new capabilities and skills will be required. A stronger nexus between all our IHLs and employers is therefore crucial in ensuring that our IHLs remain responsive and relevant to changing industry needs.

16. We have been trying for a long time to bring IHLs and industry closer together. In the past, certainly when I was in my first stint in MOE, I would ask IHLs if they have industry links, and they will all say "Yes" immediately. But when you ask industry what they think of their links with IHLs, they will tell you that the IHLs tend to be a bit too academic, and too far removed from real world practicalities.

17. This is only my second day in MOE, but I have been receiving updates and briefings from the staff, and I am very glad to hear that this situation has changed over these years. Our IHLs are now expanding their networks of industry partners, and working more closely to foster wide-reaching collaborations with employers. One example is the collaboration between the Institute of Systems Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS-ISS) and NCS Pte Ltd. It allows fresh graduates and mid-career professionals to simultaneously work in NCS and be trained in knowledge and skills to take up various job roles. By combining industry experience through their work on projects for NCS' clients, and completion of graduate certifications in various specialisations, employees can attain a Master of Technology from NUS-ISS. More importantly, they will gain valuable skills that will position them well for their career in the IT industry. Since July 2019, more than 500 NCS employees have gone through this programme to prepare them for additional roles and responsibilities across different business areas.

18. Our IHLs are also scaling up training partnerships with large anchor companies, which we call SkillsFuture Queen Bee companies. These enterprises have deep sectoral knowledge, capabilities and resources to facilitate upskilling and reskilling beyond their own workforce. For example, NTU and Facebook are launching a 9-month programme to develop local engineering talent to fill the increasing demand for data centre specialists. The course content is co-developed with Facebook, and is informed by industry insights on the in-demand and emerging skills required for engineering specialists at its data centres. And I understand that NTU is progressively planning to introduce more courses and involve more players from the data centre industry. These are excellent examples of deeper, more wide-reaching collaborations between our IHLs and the industry, and I certainly look forward to more of such partnerships.

19. To conclude, SkillsFuture is essential to our economic transformation, but it is much more than that. SkillsFuture is a national movement to cultivate a lifelong curiosity for new knowledge, a passion for skills mastery, and a relentless pursuit for excellence among Singaporeans.

20 And we see the importance of SkillsFuture, even in our fight against COVID-19. For example, we have doctors in our Community Care Facilities (CCF), which are the auxiliary facilities that we have built to take care of the many patients who have come down with the virus – one of them is at Singapore EXPO. I have been there many times to visit, and you see the doctors caring for thousands of patients who are recovering from COVID-19. The doctors are not only looking after the patients, but they are also concerned about the outbreak of new communicable diseases, given that there are so many patients being housed together under one roof. For example, you could have an outbreak of Measles, dengue, acute diarrhoea, and it could potentially spread across many patients quickly. They decided that one critical need was to develop the capability of monitoring vital signs very quickly, so they can pick up early on any signs of outbreak that may happen, and move in early with the appropriate medical interventions. Several young doctors who are obviously imbued with the spirit of lifelong learning and also know how to code, developed their own app in a few days, and rolled it out at Singapore EXPO. That's the kind of spirit we need every Singaporean to have.

21. We are on a shared journey to be a nation of lifelong learners – learners who will constantly and actively look out for new knowledge and skills. This is ultimately about developing a spirit of curiosity; a spirit of enterprise and growth. It is about being willing to embrace change and about venturing out of our comfort zones. These are the qualities that will enable Singapore and Singaporeans to remain dynamic, resilient and successful in the years ahead.

22. On that note, let me thank everyone involved in this event for all your hard work in putting this together, and reaching out to new audiences online. I wish all of you a fruitful and fulfilling time during this period of learning. Thank you very much.