Retraining a Nation

Korn Ferry CMO Mike Distefano writes about how Singapore, already strong for business, is taking on a huge goal: upgrading its workforce.

In a shifting economy and corporate world, agility has become a key predictor of success—yet studies show only a fraction of the global workforce is considered highly agile. In this regular column, Michael Distefano, Korn Ferry’s chief marketing officer and chief operating officer, Asia Pacific, explores the concept of agility: who has it, who doesn’t, and what companies can do to mold it.

What does a nation known to have the highest-achieving students and top-ranked technical talent in the world do to sustain and grow its economy? Well, if it’s the government of Singapore, it embarks on a massive retraining of its workforce.

The Singapore government is pumping $1 billion annually between now and 2020 into SkillsFuture, an initiative aimed at upskilling the country’s workers for a knowledge-based economy. The money will fund programs such as career guidance for students, enhanced internships, and subsidies for mid-career learning, among others. The centerpiece of SkillsFuture is a $500 credit available to all citizens over the age of 25 to use on education or career development training.

SkillsFuture is the latest in a long line of initiatives undertaken by the Singapore government dating back to the 1990s to spur innovation and economic growth and improve productivity. Though only a quarter of the size of Rhode Island, Singapore consistently ranks among the best cities in the world for business generally and for startups in particular. In creating SkillsFuture, the Singapore government is incentivizing its citizens to retrain themselves for the future of work, a safe bet given its culture of achieving the highest academic grades possible. “We must make it possible for every individual to decide on his or her own learning journey,” Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and then Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said upon announcing the credit in 2015.

As the second-busiest port city in the world, many of the distribution jobs that are a key part of Singapore’s economy are under threat of eradication by automation. According to one study, nearly one-fifth of workers in Singapore fear losing their jobs to automation. If learning agility means anything, it means a bias for action. The SkillsFuture initiative incentivizes this bias for action in Singapore-based enterprises and Singaporeans. That bodes well for Singaporeans, considering that the number one predictor of both enterprise and individual success in today’s digital economy is agility, which Korn Ferry defines as the ability to solve complex problems, easily adapt in a constantly changing world, and thrive on ambiguity, among other traits.

There are obstacles ahead, however. Singapore is facing sluggish economic growth, an aging population, and low job creation. Productivity has also been negative until 2016, and there are critiques of the SkillsFuture program, which may have hurt the program’s enrollment rate. Only 126,000 out of 2 million eligible residents took the credit last year, or 6.3% of the eligible population. (Singapore’s total population is 5.6 million.)

The good news is that SkillsFuture is still in its infancy, and the Singapore government has a track record of success with these kinds of initiatives.