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The Future of Work

31 Jul 2016

By 2030, one-fifth of Singapore's population will be over 65 years of age. Many will still be working in an age when robots, automation and artificial intelligence have reshaped or even replaced jobs. On Insight Pages B2-4, in the fourth of The Straits Times Future Economy Roundtable series, experts discuss the future of manpower and work as Singapore vies to be one of the world's most technologically advanced and connected societies.     

With an older workforce, the way we approach work will have to change but technology and the move towards freelancing will provide new opportunities.

Ignatius Low

Managing Editor (English/Malay/Tamil Media Group)

Q By 2030, one in five Singaporeans will be aged 65 and above. How do we deal with a workforce like that?

NG CHER PONG Given the context of a very tight labour market, barring external shocks, companies will need to think very hard about how to tap the strengths of older workers. These workers clearly bring vast experience and serve as good role models to help mentor and guide young workers. But employers need to recognise there are practices and constraints that make it harder for older workers to give their best.

TOH YONG CHUAN I am an optimist. I think employers are generally willing to adapt to that change in the labour force rather than fight it - but the details, they probably have to work out. For example, they cannot take long working hours, so that means something requiring two shifts now may require three shifts. But government policy has a big role - we all know that employers react to incentives.

Q Do you think it will require legislation?

DILYS BOEY Legislation sets the tone for companies and provides the right support, whether in the form of funds or grants, but ultimately, organisations need to understand there will be an increasing shortage of skills and we need to approach it more holistically. How do you start planning for which are the critical jobs that will fall off with retirement, and how do you then leverage the existing workforce to fill those gaps? But also, there are still mindsets that need to be changed, with respect to the ability and capacity of some of the older workforce.

Q Technology will be a key factor. The current batch of workers in their 40s and 50s are a lot more tech-savvy than those above 65 who are struggling to get to grips with smartphones.

OLIVIER LEGRAND I agree. We often think of technology as destroying jobs, but it is also creating jobs and opportunities. There is research showing that by 2020, 40 per cent of workers in the United States will be freelancers, part-timers or contractors. This can create a lot of opportunities for older workers who have skills and can use technology. For example, on LinkedIn, we have this idea of creating a professional identity online, being discoverable and spending time describing your experience - not just saying, "I was the marketing director of Company A and B in healthcare", but exactly what it is I have been doing over the course of my career that I can reproduce in other companies.

Q The move towards freelancing and contract workers will obviously solve some of the problems older workers face. They can work from home and for shorter stints.

NG I think it will spread to more sectors and there are some fundamental implications. Freelancers are focused on assignments and don't build a portfolio of skills to prepare for the longer term. We are concerned because, first, it's a lot harder to reach out to freelancers because they are all in disparate places. Second, the freelancer who goes for training bears his own opportunity cost.

LEGRAND There is a big difference between being a freelancer because you want to be a freelancer, and being a freelancer because this is the only job you can find. Being able to help people to acquire those skills that are going to be in high demand is going to put them in control of their future.

BOEY As companies start looking for deeper skills, they find they may not always get these from their full-time cohort. Organisations have to rethink the fundamentals around their employment contracts because right now, they are very much bound by space and time. I hire you for a specific period of time, you come to work at a particular place and this is your role and typically, you do whatever we tell you to do. Whereas the freelancer comes with something very specialised and targeted. They are focused only on their output and deliverable, and I think organisations will see the value of that increasingly.

Q Given Singapore's economic history of always having to run ahead of everyone, so if you are a Singapore worker, you have to deal not just with the fact that you are ageing, but there is also an accelerated move towards automation and this is a national strategy to remain competitive.

LEGRAND Yet, you are doing this in an environment with good infrastructure and access to the Internet, higher social mobility, and access to education. The scale and proactiveness of the Government play a big role, and for me, all of the above make a huge difference in empowering people here.

BOEY You are right. We've got the players committed to it - whether it is the Government, educational institutes or the organisations. There is a lot of ability to leverage the thinking, whether it is driverless cars or translation tools, and then very quickly bring those technologies into our business context. So it is in the application of these technologies that, perhaps, we have an advantage of being able to scale up. And maybe for the small and medium-sized enterprises, with a bit of a push, they can learn from one another and leapfrog very quickly.

Q I was watching the American sitcom Silicon Valley, and there is an episode where Richard Hendricks needs a bunch of coders immediately. And you can't assemble a team that quickly, even in Silicon Valley. So he puts out a call and gets coders from all over the world. To me, this is the vision of the future: The Singapore worker is not only a freelancer and works from home, but is also part of this global workforce.

BOEY This must be enabled by soft skills, like communication. Working in a virtual environment, being able to hold the meeting off a teleconference or a conference call - it is a different kind of skill. There needs to be a fundamental rethink around how we approach work. Normally, nine-to-five, we are in the office; now, time is no boundary - we need to be able to embrace that.

TOH But the problem about the Singapore economy is that we have two tiers. We have people doing high-end jobs but, on the other hand, we have very mundane work being done by low-cost foreign workers. We cannot have an idealised version of everybody in the workforce being part of this globally competitive economy, right? Because the majority of the economic activity in Singapore is still primarily domestic services.

NG But that line is being shifted because of industry transformation. Retail used to be a domestic sector, but now with e-commerce, that is no longer the case. If you want to be competitive, you need to be selling around the region, you need to be selling in China. And that would mean Singaporeans having to have the skills and the understanding of the markets to be able to do that.

Q One of the issues we have been dealing with in Singapore, and is currently debated all over the world, is the idea of immigration and free flow of manpower. How do you think this will change in 2030?

NG I think it will change in tandem with the growth in the local labour force. The clear policy intent is to maintain a certain mix of local and foreign workers. The local workforce growth will slow, so that means there must be a corresponding slowdown in foreign workforce growth. The question then is: If you are only bringing in this number of foreigners, what is the right mix? It will have to depend on how the economy is restructuring, what are the jobs available.

Increasingly with big data, we would have the ability to see where jobs are being created in a specific area and whether there are many foreigners being brought in. The policy question is that if these are good jobs, are we able to help equip Singaporeans to do those jobs? These are the sorts of changes that, with technology, can happen.

Will it be man versus machine? 

Q In Singapore we have been trying to raise productivity levels and we now have a big opportunity with automation, robots and artificial intelligence. A Boston Consulting Group study posits that by 2025, a quarter of jobs will be replaced by smart software or robots. An Oxford University study says 35 per cent of jobs in Britain will go the same way. We have robots writing poetry now. How will automation change jobs and manpower in 2030?

LEGRAND I was recently sitting on a panel about artificial intelligence and one of the co-panellists said he thinks more about augmented intelligence. If you pit man against machine in a chess game, the machine starts to win most of the time.

But if you do man-plus-machine versus machine, man-plus-machine will always win.

So it's going to be about being one of those humans who know how to work with the machine to deliver a stronger throughput - faster, smarter and more efficient.

So I like this idea, rather than the rise of the bots and the fact that we're all going to disappear and they are going to take control of our planet. I like this idea of augmented intelligence and how man-plus-machine can create incredible things.

TOH When I, as a manpower reporter, talk to workers, the fear of losing their jobs and being replaced by robots is very real.

Taxi drivers are worried about being replaced by Uber, and Uber drivers are worried about driverless cars. But you can't automate everything. You can't automate the physiotherapist helping the elderly patient exercise.

You can't automate some retail and F&B services, where you need to take the food to the table.

So I think there is a balance that companies have to find - how much to automate, how much not to.

BOEY Look at our clerical staff or even the profession that I'm in, whether it's tax associates or the audit associates. If you're spending a lot of time doing data collection and consolidation, you almost know that that's a job that's going to go with automation.

So then don't spend too much time manipulating the data, but on thinking about the insights that you get from the data. How do I focus on the more value-added part of the work - that's one change the individuals need to make.

TOH I'm quite uncomfortable with the kind of fear that you might put in workers, that they may be replaced. I don't think the threat is overstated, but the debate lacks some precision. What will be useful is an assessment of what kinds of machines will replace what kinds of workers, and to what extent.

So, for example, translation.

It's very clear to me that eventually, humans will be replaced because 10 years ago, we laughed at the automatic translation, but now it's almost 100 per cent precise.

But driving, driverless cars?

I think that's a little bit oversold.

Life beyond data entry...

Q In 2030, workers in Singapore want to be in a position where their skills are in demand. The Government has rolled out the SkillsFuture programme to ensure the workforce stays relevant even as it ages and business cycles get shorter. But amid the thousands of courses, how does one correctly pick the skills that will be marketable when one gets older?

LEGRAND Perpetual learning, an appetite for learning and understanding that you're going to have to learn for the rest of your working life.

We come from a place where we go get a diploma and think it is the key to employment for 25 years. This world has changed, so we need to get in the minds of our kids that school is just one step.

The other thing we can do for our workers is give them actionable insights, use big data to tell them what is it they should learn, because putting people in front of thousands and thousands of courses and saying: "Hey, pick one" is very overwhelming.

TOH There are some things that are beyond the scope of the individual micro perspective. Workers will not know what kind of jobs will demand their skills in 14 years' time. So individual desire has to be matched with what I broadly call government planning.

Only the Government knows by its reading of the international economy, technology and whatever changes, some areas that might demand more workers.

NG There is some steering that is required, but there is a limit to how much the Government can do, because as industries change, we can work on the supply side, but employers need to shift as well. It's a tripartite approach, looking hard at how will a particular sector change, how manpower and skills-needs change. We put that information out but ultimately it would still be up to Singaporeans to decide where their strengths are, where their interests are and then how they then over time build a career around it.

Q I still haven't got an answer from you on what skills to pick up now for 2030.

NG Maybe I can try. There are a bunch of what we call "horizontal skills" - communication skills and what Olivier talked about, learning to learn. I think those are horizontal skills that will be increasingly important particularly where jobs change. It's the ability to be adaptable.

Then at the same time there are what I would call technical skills which are increasingly important. So areas like data sciences, for example. You see data sciences required across many different fields.

BOEY You need people in the business to make sense of the information, whether you're an Uber driver who has lots of data around demand and supply and where to pick people up, or in healthcare and administrative jobs. You're not going to be the data entry person any more, but you're going to have information around suspicious transactions or anomalies, and know how to make sense of that data in order to make the right decisions around it.

TOH Social skills, too. We always assume that jobs at higher risk of being replaced are those that can be automated. That's work that is done in front of a terminal, compared to dealing with older patients and burgeoning ranks of older people that need some form of personal direct care.

NG Companies need to be willing to hire somebody from a completely different sector and that requires work. In the past, companies looked quite narrowly at the vertical that they're focused on. Now we see a lot more of them saying: Well, I'm looking for a PMET to fill this job, but I'm prepared to look for somebody else with no relevant experience whatsoever.

That's where WDA (the Workforce Development Agency) is working to come in with what we call a professional conversion programme to help companies and individuals make that switch.

Another area we're working on is the need for a skills taxonomy. If you are able to break down what the individual has done into skills that he or she has built up and then say how these skills are relevant if they were to switch industry or jobs, that makes the transition much easier.



TOH YONG CHUAN, Senior Manpower Correspondent at The Straits Times

DILYS BOEY, partner and Asean People Advisory Leader at EY

NG CHER PONG, chief executive of the Singapore Workforce Development Agency

OLIVIER LEGRAND, managing director and vice-president, Asia-Pacific and Japan, at LinkedIn


IGNATIUS LOW, managing editor of Singapore Press Holdings' English/Malay/ Tamil Media Group

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction.