Getting firms to invest in helping workers prepare for future jobs

Miles away from Singapore at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland recently, I felt as though I had never left home. Technological disruption, layoffs and lifelong learning - all hot issues in Singapore - dominated discussions during the three-day event.

One exchange in particular left a deep impression on me.

Mr Dominic Barton, global managing partner of consulting firm McKinsey & Company, was asked if his firm recommended that clients use a part of the costs saved through layoffs to reskill their displaced workers, when advising on restructuring. His answer was no.

He added: "But that's, I think, where it is going... There is no difficulty in convincing the client about that, they see that as well."

I was struck by two things. One, that this experienced consultant stated so clearly that he thought companies should consider helping displaced workers reskill for new jobs. Call this preemptive reskilling.

And two, that although he thought so, it was not part of the advice he doled out to companies restructuring.

Perhaps companies, even as they may see its benefits, face difficulties in taking up this challenge.

Yet, as a young journalist operating in a disrupted media environment, I feel that preemptive reskilling is an imperative for companies. Around the world and in Singapore, more societies are coming to see that such retraining is the way forward. Singapore recognises this, which might explain why it has launched a national movement to help citizens master skills throughout their careers.

But are companies getting on board fast enough? As firms restructure to cut costs, are they doing enough to help displaced workers make transitions to new roles in the face of technological disruption and automation?

Participants at a robotic workshop at the Lifelong Learning Festival last year. Given the impact of automation looming on the horizon, the question, as raised by the writer, is whether companies are doing enough to help displaced workers make transitions to new roles. ST FILE PHOTO

With the impact of automation looming on the horizon, why is the preemptive retraining of workers not already part of strategies proposed by a leading consulting firm?

After all, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute last year estimated that between 400 million and 800 million people could find themselves displaced by automation - and in need of new jobs.

JOB CRITERIA

Think about joining an organisation that is actually focused on trying to make you employable for the long term. Not giving you a job forever, but making you employable.

MR DOMINIC BARTON, global managing partner of consulting firm McKinsey & Company, on his advice to young people looking for employment.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, a rise in the long-term unemployment rate over the past two years - referring to the proportion of resident labour force remaining unemployed for at least 25 weeks -was flagged as cause for concern last December.

Experts called it a sign that displaced workers are finding it harder to migrate to new industries, noting the need to upgrade skills of workers, especially older ones. If so, perhaps bolder moves could be taken to help retrain workers.

What can companies do?

For one, instead of "discarding" workers in restructuring exercises, they can retrain them for new jobs, as Mr Barton said at the forum.

Telecommunications firm AT&T partnered the Georgia Institute of Technology and online training firm Udacity, and identified new jobs that call centre workers, for example, could be retrained for - knowing that these roles are likely to be made redundant with automation in the future. It reskilled 100,000 workers.

Singapore too is taking positive steps in a similar direction. Some 160 member banks under the Association of Banks in Singapore adopted a new set of practices to actively assess the impact of technology on their workforce. The banks are to reskill and redeploy their staff to areas of job growth through professional conversion programmes.

Beyond banking, other industries could benefit from a similar move. An industry-wide approach can help individual companies learn from each other to identify which groups of workers are at risk of losing jobs and where they could then be retrained and placed - instead of facing retrenchment.

Economists say this is easier said than done here.

Dr Kelvin Seah of the National University of Singapore noted that the urgency to work together to reskill is felt differently across industries. Banking may be among the first movers given Singapore's position as a financial hub, and as they are likely to be hit hard, he added.

Associate Professor Randolph Tan of the Singapore University of Social Sciences said: "The main impediment to preemptive reskilling is the availability and reliability of information about where and how to target more precisely the areas where reskilling is most urgently needed."

This is not a new problem, and comes down to how firms deal with competition, he added.

He identified two challenges: Convincing companies that have the most reliable data to look past competitive differences and share information; and deciding how to allocate limited resources for reskilling.

Even as banding together is a better way to confront difficulties, like those presented by a rapidly changing skills landscape, Singapore's commercial sector is still relatively small and this affects how companies collaborate, said Prof Tan.

"I believe that is why companies often wait for the Government to play the critical role," he added.

Apart from signalling that banks should take up the responsibility of reskilling workers, existing schemes by the authorities already allow workers to preemptively upskill, should they wish to do so.

Workforce Singapore, for example, has more than 100 Professional Conversion Programmes that help professionals prepare for new jobs in the new economy, even within the same company. Last year, 3,300 Singaporeans were placed in new jobs through the scheme, up from 1,300 in 2016.

This month, the Manpower Ministry also said it will launch a new SkillsFuture scheme to help businesses make training a key part of their strategy. This is timely, given that a recent study by human resources firm Korn Ferry found Singapore will lack more than one million skilled workers by 2030.

One hopes that the Government's moves signal effective changes across industries in time to come.

During the St Gallen Symposium, Mr Barton had some advice for young people who want to be confident they have a place in the 21st century of work: "Think about joining an organisation that is actually focused on trying to make you employable for the long term. Not giving you a job forever, but making you employable."

Those words resonated with me. With potentially decades more of work life ahead of me, that is the kind of company I would hope to work for. As businesses adapt to disruptions - with the help of the authorities - one hopes that this statement will apply to more firms, and that more will invest in helping workers prepare for future jobs.