“We want to empower every citizen to be able to make a decision about how they want to invest in themselves and the kind of career they want,” says Dr. Soon Joo Gog, Chief Futurist at SkillsFuture SG in Singapore’s Ministry of Education. That’s obviously an ambitious goal, but this small city-state has a reputation for pioneering new approaches to building a skills ecosystem. To achieve it, the government gives every citizen 25 years of age and older $1,000 in credits toward education and skills training. That jumps to $1,500 in credits once you reach 40. The credits belong to the person, not an employer, making them portable throughout their life. She describes SkillsFuture, where she is also Chief Skills Officer and Chief Research Officer, as a national movement that later developed into a government agency offering job skills insights for individuals, businesses, education and training partners, and policymakers. One of her most important strategies is engaging with companies considered innovative to find out how their use of technology changes worker skills over time so SkillsFuture SG can work with educators to align training programs with future labor needs. Check out this fascinating conversation with Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan and one of the world’s leading workforce innovators to learn about the “trinity of partners” essential to her work, and the role smart dustbins are playing in Singapore’s high-tech, high-skill economy.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, health care and workforce explore new education-to-work approaches and innovations. I’m your host Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health. My guest today has the coolest job title of any guest on the podcast so far, Chief Futurist. And that’s not the only title Dr. Soon Joo Gog has at SkillsFuture SG, part of the Nation of Singapore’s Ministry of Education. She is also the Chief Skills Officer and Chief Research Officer, leading a team of data experts and futurists to develop job skills insights for individuals, businesses, education and training partners, and policymakers in Singapore. Dr. Gog has a global reputation as a leader in driving workforce innovation and leads international research in the future work, learning and skills. She previously held a number of positions in Singapore’s government and describes herself as a socio-economic scientist who is passionate about the skills ecosystem and lifelong learning. I’ve really been looking forward to having her on the show because her work is so interesting and important. Thanks very much for joining us today, Soon Joo.
Soon Joo Gog: Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity and the invitation to share.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Can you start by sharing with us why the country of Singapore established your agency and why the choice of the name SkillsFuture SG?
Soon Joo Gog: Thank you. In fact, if you look back to Singapore’s history, we have been investing relentlessly in our people since the nation building 55 years ago. So, it is not the first time that we have dedicated resources to build our people because Singapore is a small city-state and what we value most is our people. We don’t have a lot of resources like natural resources. People are our most precious resource. We have been investing a lot in terms of education, from gender education, primary school, secondary school to tertiary education and lifelong learning has always been the Singapore government’s commitment. SkillsFuture Singapore actually is a national movement and subsequently we set up an agency to drive this movement. The intention of the movement is to promote lifelong learning and the outcome is very clear. It’s about realizing every individual’s potential in Singapore so that we can all realize our most inspiring career potential.
We think this is a very important endeavor because as the nation moves forward, things will change very rapidly from the perspective of technology, from the perspective of the economy and also businesses. How we can help people to acquire the skills needed so that they can stay ahead of the curve is very important. So, the SkillsFuture SG was started as a movement in 2015. In 2016, we set up the agency. The agency’s mandate is to identify the kind of skills needed for the economy and then we share the information and insights with people, with employers and with the education and training institutions. We also provide the funding subsidies to defray the kind of out-of-pocket expenses the individual and employers need to fork out to reskill their workforce. At the same time, we curate the best quality education and training providers into the ecosystem. We kind of create a skill ecosystem that’s dynamic so we can anticipate the skills needed. We can reskill ahead of time so that people have adequate time to acquire the skills, apply to skilled workplaces and at the same time we can engage employers and bring together the key stakeholders into the ecosystem — individuals, unions, education and training providers — to make sure that this whole ecosystem is in time to make sure that we have the right skills that are needed for the economy.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, I’m sure our audience can probably already tell how smart Singapore is in terms of its design of public policies, and your organization is an exemplar already. Some say that it is because you are a smaller nation and therefore it’s more manageable to do so, but I believe these smart policies arise because you first scan the world for solutions and ideas, then come up with what is best for your situation in your context. What is the situation for adult reskilling in Singapore? What problem is the country trying to solve, and what do you recommend others replicate? I know that that’s a lot of questions. (laughs)
Soon Joo Gog: Probably I can share what we currently are doing, or this is what we’re trying to do. When we started the SkillsFuture movement in 2016, we gave every Singaporean who was 25 years old and above $500 SkillsFuture credits. In fact, last October, we just added another $500 top up. And for Singaporeans 40 and above, they have additional $500 dollars. So, in all, we have $1,500 SkillsFuture credit for every individual. I think that is a very important shift that we’ve done, because we want to empower every citizen to be able to make a decision about how they want to invest in themselves and the kind of career they want, besides working alongside with employers.
Of course, employers are very key to us, so we are engaging employers as another key strategy. That’s a second strategy. We engage employers to ask, “how is your business moving forward?” Because even pre-COVID, businesses are changing. The kind of new emerging economy is moving. And we are asking at the same time, employers, which direction are you moving? What kind of talent and skills do you need? The employer is not just a location or a partner to use skills, they are critical partner in developing skills because workplaces are the best place to develop skills. We’re trying to link the employer and the education and training institutions to close the nexus of who is the supplier and who is the developer of the skills. It has to be a very close partnership. I think the third area that we really focus on is about what kind of relationship we want to strike with our education and training institutions because they are the ones that will create the best outcomes and the most contemporary pedagogy, create and develop the kind of learning experiences that are necessary to help the learners acquire the learning, and yet you can apply the learning at the workplace.
What I call the “trinity of partners” is very important and we try to see how best we can facilitate the collaboration between the three of them by providing the data, providing the insights they need to make the key decisions, by bringing them together to have the dialog to create programs together that are needed. I think this is very important for policymakers. It’s not just about giving funding support, but it’s about how do we facilitate the discussions coming together to make things happen.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: I definitely want to probe more on the employers and the educators. But first, on the point of the credits – the $1,500 in credits — it sounds to me like a portable learning account where the government is investing…
Soon Joo Gog: Yes.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: I see. One of the things that we’re wrestling with is that adults don’t necessarily have a norm of accessing more education. What is your feel for how much adults are tapping into these credits in order to skill up?
Soon Joo Gog: As of 2019 we have a really sizable number of Singaporeans utilizing the credits. I would say that since the SkillsFuture movement started, we have seen a tremendous increase in terms of the workforce training participation. Prior to the SkillsFuture movement, our workforce training participation was hovering about 32 percent, but as of 2019, it has shot up to 48 percent. It is not the best record yet. We would love to see this get to the high 60s and high 70s, but I think that quick jump over the last three years is a good sign that people are taking their own initiative because now they see that “oh, I have this account set up for me and this money I can utilize to defray out of pocket costs on top of what the government is already funding.”
For example, a training program can cost you $1,000 and we would already have funded a 40-year-old Singaporean 90 percent of the cost. So, $900 dollars has been funded. For the 10 percent that they have to pay, they can use the credit. What this means is it’s almost a free training. The decision is then about what kind of courses I need, what kind of skills I want to go for so that I can support the next part of my career. More importantly now, we are also moving into looking at labor market information and labor market data about how individuals make informed decisions.
We also work very, very closely with our labor movement, our union. In Singapore we call them the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC). They mobilize their union members on the ground and look into what kind of skills are needed. They set up a company training committee to review what kind of training is needed within the organizations, within the firms, so that they can mobilize the union members to go for the training. It is not just about money given to people. It’s also about information and tools. It’s also about working through trade unions and chambers of commerce, because the chambers will be able to mobilize the employers. The skill ecosystem has to be a very dynamic one where all of us are participating in the same conversations, from the business perspective to the talent and skills perspective. Every of our key stakeholders will play their part to make sure that this will work together.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: One of my favorite stories that you shared with me is your work with leading edge innovators, basically companies that are ahead of the curve when it comes to automation, to observe how they impact the workforce and the skill sets. I was wondering if you could give us a little bit of detail and what were the workforce implications of watching and observing that terminal in action?
Soon Joo Gog: Yes, I think when I met you I was sharing a video about our Changi Airport terminal four. It is a fully-automated airport where you can check-in by yourself, you can self-check your bag, you can clear Customs and Immigration….everything is just fully automated. This is something that our Changi Airport group and our Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore has put in place. It is phase one of a national plan to digitize Singapore so that it is a seamless travel experience for our travelers, whether they are inbound or outbound. It’s very smooth because you can just tap your passport, they scan with facial recognition and you can clear Immigration without having somebody stamp your passport.
This is just a beginning. I think what we have learned together through the whole process is that there is a lot of rethinking of operating models. It’s not just a deployment of technology. The end point is “how can we provide a seamless travel experience for anybody coming to Singapore or leaving Singapore?” A lot of places will treat the airport as just a transport hub. But in Singapore, we want to make Changi Airport itself a destination. It is an extended shopping mall. It is an extended experience where you can go there and sit down, relax, do last-minute shopping, have a drink before you depart. So, I think the whole experience, including Singapore culture, is a built-in experiential center. It’s not just about an airport that clears people and pushes them onto the flight. The whole design has a very different intention and purpose.
Of course, because of the operational model changes, it will impact the kind of workforce within there. There will be a reduction of counter service staff, but they will require more experienced and empathetic customer service officers who roam around the whole airport to help those who look lost or who seem to be needing some help. They will not be serving just one single customer. So, the kind of training required for the customer service officer is very different. Those who receive the data on the back end will be very different. Those who will be observing the dashboard, looking at the whole picture, from the cleanliness to other matters at a smart airport, will be very different. The maintenance team will be very different. If you come to Changi airport today you will see robots cleaning the whole airport moving around on their own. The dustbin itself is a smart dustbin because it will signal someone when it is almost full and requires emptying. So, we don’t have to waste manpower moving around unnecessarily. They will be deployed to the right place when the signal comes in. These are the kind of things that we started to implement in Singapore.
The airport is one of them, but there are many other things. For example, recently we had conversations with security services companies, which are in high demand recently because of COVID. They need to deploy people to the commercial buildings to do temperature scanning. You have to register entering a property. So, there were a lot of counters set-up to manage access control because of the pandemic situation. We spoke to a very progressive security company. They are already thinking ahead to how can they provide these services better in the event that this pandemic is going to stretch for a longer period of time. How can they better deploy technology to serve their customers better on location? Can they do installations of technology that will replace the need to have a human set up a counter and stand in front? They’re thinking about how can they set up a smart, closed-circuit TV system that uses facial recognition, that can register body temperatures very quickly and that can allow the client to understand the traffic flow into a building very quickly.
These are the things that we constantly have to keep track of. What are the very innovative companies doing and what kind of training is needed? This kind of information will be very helpful for education and training institutions. They can start to figure out that if the employers are thinking about this at this moment in time, when will it become mainstream and then what kind of lead time will I have to train up my future workforce? I think we have to do this kind of bridging of gaps and bring the whole skill ecosystem together. Sometimes we have to start some approval concepts to bring partners together and say “hey, why don’t we start something together?”
Van Ton-Quinlivan: It’s getting tougher and tougher for adults to keep up with this rate of change. Are you playing with any of the state-of-the-art learning technologies like Augmented Reality and Virtual reality?
Soon Joo Gog: Last year, we completed a future of adult learning research agenda. We galvanized our local universities to come together to deliberate and say that if we want to enhance our adult learning, what are the things we already know? What are the things we need to know? What are the things we do not know, that we need to invest in more research? And it was a very comprehensive study from which we have developed a research agenda that is cross- disciplinary from neuroscience — because we want to know how can we enhance adult learning, cognitive ability, how can we enhance memory — to how can we think about the kind of spatial environment that is most effective or most conducive for learning in different work contexts, to even community-based learning. What kind of community-based learning is best and what kind of technology should we explore further? I think there’s no boundary. I think we should just continue to push for this. And we are very happy that the universities came together and proposed a research agenda that we should continue to invest in Singapore so that we can always do better.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, you are so generous in all this research and what you’re learning and being willing to share with others. You serve on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the New Agenda for Education and Skills. What are you hoping to contribute to that work and have there been any learnings or “ah-has” for you that you’ve gleaned to bring back?
Soon Joo Gog: I’m actually very honored to be invited to the Global Future Council for Education and Skills. The World Economic Forum is a very interesting and very encouraging organization. They’re trying to bring together policymakers, academia, employers and NGOs to think about how can we enhance education, especially post-COVID. This particular council is primarily looking at how can we push out a set of action plans and engage employers, engage education institutions, and engage policy makers to necessary actions in pedagogical design and delivery in terms of anticipating skills and in terms of measuring outcomes. I think these are the three priority areas that the council is currently looking at.
We are very happy that all of us across the world are facing similar challenges. And in fact, whatever comes up from the council will be very useful and we are sharing experiences across various countries, across various universities, and employers are all contributing to the conversations. What I’m most inspired about by the council’s work is it is not just a plan. It is about an action that once a plan is ready, how do we mobilize employers, education and training institutions, and policymakers coming together to take actions to make education and skills more relevant to the future economy.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: I need to get in one more question here before we begin to close. You talked about COVID and its impact on the economy and how it sort of foreshadows how the future will play out. Well, one of the things that’s becoming obvious with all the telework is that you begin to shrink office facilities, and once you shrink office facilities work can get more fragmented and become more “gigged” because employers also want the flexibility and not hard code their workforce. We’re seeing the value of portable benefits which is a practice, a structural practice, that Singapore has had around for a while. I was wondering if you could just describe for us what the experience is for the worker when benefits are actually portable and how do employers contribute to the portability?
Soon Joo Gog: Thanks for the question. In Singapore, I think we can look at benefits in a few ways. We have a central provision fund where employer and employee will both contribute on a monthly basis. Let’s say a young adult coming into the workforce on a monthly basis, the employer will need to contribute 20 percent of the salary into this provident fund. An individual contributes 16 percent in the fund. This provident fund will have different accounts. One account is the medical account, one is an ordinary account, and one is a special account. You can use part of the ordinary account to fund your housing. The medical account, you can use it to buy insurance because there is a universal coverage for all of us. Regardless of where you go, basically this is an institution that you have to adhere to and pay accordingly. The government will continue to encourage people to buy insurance that you need to top it up. There is also insurance that the government thinks every single one of us should buy in terms of insurance for dependents and old age insurance that you want to buy to top up. That is typically on an individual basis. It’s not tied to a fund. So regardless of wherever you moved, that can move with you.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: So, if I’m working a gig or project as a contractor for an employer, that employer pays some fraction?
Soon Joo Gog: In Singapore, the government would encourage this worker to contribute to their own fund because it is tax deductible. So that if you keep putting in your fund, you can actually reduce your payable tax.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: I see. If I’m doing small gigs, small projects as a contractor, I can contribute my 16 percent?
Soon Joo Gog: Yes, that’s right.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Is the employer at that moment also contributing the 20 percent?
Soon Joo Gog: No, because if it’s not an employer-employee relationship but is a contract for service, then this would not apply.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Ok, that’s very helpful clarification. But it’s so inspiring to know that Singapore has put in place a portable benefit structure that works and is already situated well into the future. Thank you very much, Dr. Gog for being with us today.
Soon Joo Gog: Thank you.
Van Ton-Quinlivan: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce here in America.