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Speech By Deputy Prime Minister And Minister For Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam, At The Official Opening Of The Social Service Institute

28 Jun 2013

Acting Minister (MSF) Mr Chan Chun Sing

President NCSS Mr Hsieh Fu Hua

NCSS Board Members

Ladies & Gentlemen

1. Good morning.  It is my privilege and pleasure to join all of you this morning for the official opening of the new and enhanced Social Service Institute, which significantly broadens the role of the SSTI  which was founded ten years ago.

Building a Better Singapore

2. The social service profession is more important today than it has ever been. It is at the core of our collective effort to build a better Singapore - a society with a heart, and a Singapore where every citizen has hope.

3. A quick word first about government policies. We have made important shifts. We are stepping up social policy: to help children from disadvantaged homes to gain confidence early in life; to support low-income families in their efforts to gain

resilience and do well; and to provide a greater sense of security for the elderly and those with disabilities.

4. Equally, we have geared economic policy to promote quality growth, in other words growth that can benefit all Singaporeans. And we are at the same time making our fiscal system more progressive by tilting taxes and benefits in favour of the lower- and middle-income groups.

5.   In short, we are doing more through government policies to promote a fair and inclusive society. But the solution to low incomes and inequality does not only lie in supporting incomes through government transfers or other policy moves, as many other societies have found.  It takes people with the passion and skills to help others:

- the learning support specialists and teachers who work with kids in the early years;

- social workers who help lower-income families overcome the deeper and more complex problems they often face;

- counsellors who gain the trust of drug offenders and other ex-inmates and help them turn their lives around;

- healthcare and eldercare workers who give comfort to the old;

- and the volunteers from all walks of life who put time and heart into making life better for their fellow Singaporeans.   

People like those of you in the audience. I applaud you and the many others working in our various social services for contributing to a better Singapore.  

Developing the Social Service Profession

6. We must groom a larger pool of committed, qualified and skilled social service professionals. I often meet VWO leaders. When I ask them about the challenges they face, the issue of manpower comes to the fore.  They face difficulty in attracting, developing and retaining good people.  We must work together to find innovative solutions to overcome these manpower challenges in a labour market with many competing careers.  Let me outline three areas in which we need to do more.

Talent Pipelines

7. First, we have to widen our talent pipelines into social services, and find ways to recruit, manage and develop people collectively to complement what  each VWO does on its own

8. We have begun these efforts.  Over the last 3 years, we have brought in over 400 social service professionals via scholarships, study awards and professional conversion programme.  We must do more.

9. We need more diploma holders. The first batch of Diploma in Social Services (Social Work) holders  graduated from Nanyang Polytechnic last month.  They will work alongside social workers, and may wish to take on a degree in social work after a few years and become qualified social workers.  Nanyang Polytechnic will double its intake to 45 students this year.  Sponsorships from NCSS and MSF are available for the students.

10. To help mid-career professionals switch  to social work, NCSS and the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) are offering funded professional conversion programmes. 77 Singaporeans have already graduated with Accelerated Bachelor’s degrees and Graduate Diplomas in Social Work.  Another 45 are  in training. 

11. Besides social workers, we are taking steps to develop other, related professions.  NCSS has been working with organisations such as WDA and the CDCs to recruit other social service professionals such as eldercare workers.  

12. To overcome the shortages of people in social services, we must be prepared to try out new and innovative approaches.  One idea worth considering is to combine forces, through coordinated or centralised recruitment and management of certain groups of professionals -  involving clusters of VWOs or MSF. 

13. There are a few examples of this already. The Therapy Hubs run by the Society for the Physically Disabled and the Society of Moral Charities are a good example.  These hubs recruit, train and employ therapists whom they then send out to provide therapy services at smaller VWOs.  In turn, the therapists benefit from better career and development opportunities.

14. We should see if we can adapt this idea of coordinated recruitment and take it further.  If there are good ideas and support from the sector, MSF is prepared to play an active, facilitative role.  Next month for example, MSF will be taking in a batch of trainees assessed to be suitable for the UniSIM social work conversion course but yet to be matched with an employer.  MSF will put them under its wings, and place them into jobs in the sector upon completion of the course.   

15. We should also allow for a two-way flow between MSF and the VWOs where possible. Some VWOs face difficulty recruiting fast enough to start up or expand key MSF-funded programmes. This year, MSF will recruit some social service professionals, above its own needs, to allow room for some staff to be posted to these VWOs so that programmes can be rolled out more quickly.  Likewise, it will open up opportunities for VWO staff to be attached to the Ministry itself. This two-way flow   will I am sure enhance career development and strengthen the profession.

16. These approaches which are being piloted, which have been jointly developed with VWOs and training providers, are currently still small.  But if the sector supports the moves and things work out well, MSF can expand the numbers.  I would welcome more ideas from all of you.

Professional Development

17. The second area we want to strengthen is professional development.   We should provide more opportunities for social service professionals to develop skills and capabilities and contribute in new ways. 
18. Last year, NCSS introduced the Master Social Worker Scheme.  It is a very good scheme, harnessing the expertise of experienced social workers to raise practice standards and provide mentorship for younger social workers.  Plans are underway to expand the scheme beyond the Family Services Centres.   

19. Today, we embark on a major milestone in professional development for social service professionals with the official opening of the Social Service Institute.

Social Service Institute

20. Set up in 2003 as the Social Service Training Institute (SSTI), the Institute has certainly grown. From less than 1,000 training places ten years ago, in 2012 more than 10,000 social service professionals took part in over 200 courses at the Institute.

21. Today, the Institute expands beyond a training centre to serve as the “Focal Point for Learning and Manpower Development for the Social Service Sector”.  To reflect this enlarged mission, it is being renamed the Social Service Institute or SSI.  The New Institute will serve a few roles.

22. First, it will expand its role as a Training Institute, and move towards more robust competency-based and certifiable training.  The Institute will adopt the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ), to provide a framework and ladder of skills and provide those in the profession with direct and convenient access to subsidised, quality training.  SSI is also working towards achieving the national CET Centre status by end of this year.  It will continue to enhance the capability of its trainers as well, through certified programmes such as the Advanced Certificate in Training and Assessment and Diploma in Adult and Continuing Education.

23. Second, SSI will serve as a Practice and Resource Hub to help capture and disseminate  the expertise and experience that resides in all of you.  One good way is through Communities of Practice.  Indeed, SSI is for everyone to contribute to, and benefit from.  Practitioners can lead Communities of Practice, serve as trainers, and help design courses or conduct research. I hope our VWOs make use of SSI to share and develop best practices with each other.   SSI will also promote fellowships, sabbaticals and other schemes to tap on local and international thought leaders and experts. 

24. Third, SSI will serve as a One-Stop Career Centre for the social service sector.  With over 400 providers in the sector, there is potential for closer collaboration in areas such as profiling social service careers, organising recruitment drives and matching aspiring entrants to hiring organisations. 

25. The One-Stop Career Centre will be staffed with career consultants.  It will also house NCSS’ manpower unit which will spearhead initiatives such as scholarships and awards and professional conversion programmes.  I hear that the career centre has already received queries from interested fresh and mid-career applicants, even before its  official opening.

26.  The Government will provide strong support for all these efforts in capability development. We have committed $100m over 5 years to the VWO and Charities Capability Fund.  And besides MSF’s efforts, WDA will co-fund the training of Singaporeans and operations of the One-Stop Career Centre, with a grant of up to $28 million over three years.

Competitive Wages

27. Let me come now to the third area which needs improving if we are to develop a strong social service profession. The sector must pay competitive wages. Today salary levels of various social service professionals lag that of their peers in other sectors.  

28. MSF and NCSS have started regular salary benchmarking for key professions in the sector.  They will adjust their funding norms for VWOs periodically to keep pace with these benchmarks.  MSF tells me that following the last round of adjustments, more than 85% of funded VWOs have in turn raised the salaries of their staff, by a median of 8%.  This is a good development for our social service professionals.  We must keep up this practice of paying staff competitively.

29. Some VWOs may however need professional help in implementing performance management and benefit systems, and determining annual increments. To help them, NCSS will offer HR advisory and consultation services.  The latest salary data I mentioned were in fact shared with VWOs just a few weeks ago in this room.  I heard that many among the VWO leadership present welcomed the information and advice, and were interested to tap on the consultancy services.

A Collaborative Effort

30. I have outlined a few key areas in which we need to do more to overcome manpower shortages and keep good people  in social services - widening our talent pipelines and coordinating recruitment and development; enhancing professional development, including the building up of SSI; and ensuring competitive wages.

31.  In all of this, it is worth reminding ourselves of the bottom line that determines if we succeed. The bottom line in social services is not in the dollars and cents, relevant as that may be. To succeed, we will need ideas, collective leadership from all of you in the sector, and spirit, the spirit that comes from a real passion for helping people in need.  We have it in us. We must try out new approaches, find every way to bring new people into social services, provide them room to develop themselves, and do everything we each can to spread the spirit.  We can and must succeed in this.