How can we future proof our workforce? | Daily News


How can we future proof our workforce?

We have heard the story over and over again, of how Lee Quan Yu, Prime Minister of Singapore wanted to model his country on a Sri Lankan frame. But that was 50 years ago, we are nowhere close to Singapore in terms of progress, and can only ask ourselves why - why did our progress report go backwards?

The obvious answer is that we did not grab the opportunity. One may argue that culturally, politically or socially, Singapore is not Sri Lanka and vice versa, but each country places its own priorities and makes decisions around it.

As I see it, there is one area that we can mend even now and that is by learning and understanding how Singapore manages its progress - looking to the future and planning what challenges the country would face. As an example of Singapore’s tenacity, I would like to take the IT sector. They were readying themselves for the computer age as early as 1980.

An article in the Reader’s Digest in August 1984, gives us an idea of how Singapore started down this path. "In March 1980 the Singapore government set up the Committee of National Computerization (CNC). The CNC was to lay the foundation for an export-oriented software industry. It found one major obstacle: a critical manpower shortage. With fewer than 1,000 computer professionals in Singapore, the committee estimated that there would have to be a six-fold increase in eight years…”

The article goes on to describe how Singapore formed a National Computer Board (NCB) in 1981, to restructure the country’s economy and its goal of coordinating education programmes in such a way as to produce 700 computer professionals each year. But the NCB did not rely on the state alone to achieve this, they got the support of multinational companies to transfer computer technology and knowledge to locals.

It took the Singapore government just three years to establish one of the world’s most successful computer-education projects in their schools. Every secondary school in Singapore had a minimum of three microcomputers and offered students computer appreciation clubs.

48 clubs with 1,500 members and 115 computers was established in 1981 and 132 clubs with 13,000 members and 438 computers by 1984. 1,700 tertiary level students applied for 120 places at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 1983 while the Singapore Polytechnic registered a 12.7 percent increase in students enrolling for computer programming courses. The computer science department of the National University of Singapore saw a 17 percent increase in students than in the previous academic year.

While Singapore was surging ahead during that entire time, Sri Lanka remained almost idle in this respect. Yes, a little bit was happening here and there but not anywhere near the scale of Singapore. When SLIIT was formed in 1999, it was the first non-state intervention to handle the growing demand for IT graduates. There was a desperate need for a university like SLIIT because the universities that were offering IT and Computer Science degrees at the time, could not handle the demand. Today, Singapore is once again ahead of the curve in preparing itself for the disruption that is bound to take place in the future.

In Nancy W. Gleason’s book titled ‘Singapore’s Higher Education Systems in the Era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Preparing Lifelong Learners’ the writer points to how closely linked Singapore’s economic prosperity is to its successful education system.

She says Singapore’s approach to education reflects its ability to adapt, and that there are a number of revisions being made to higher education, designed to instill lifelong learning tendencies in the Singaporean population. She refers to three specific higher education developments i.e. Smart Nation Singapore, SkillsFuture Singapore, and the creation of three new universities, which are set to change the way Singaporeans learn. The writer says several new higher education institutions are also on the way and all these initiatives mean that Singapore is preparing for the future economy with remarkable ingenuity. (

Currently Singapore’s education system has a reputation for preparing excellent STEM learners, where students learn to the test. The writer says this was useful in creating a workforce that crunches and manages numbers efficiently, but creative and critical thinking did not come from this sort of preparation. However, plans are now underway to develop more holistic education systems that teach students how to learn, rather than what to learn in order to adjust and continue to have an education system that delivers what the economy needs, Gleason adds.

What all this points to is that Singapore is preparing to handle the disruptive elements of the future. We too need to future proof our workforce, or we will all be in a bad situation 20 years hence.

No one is left behind

While Singapore has its own way, at home in Sri Lanka, we need our own homegrown methods to start with; while it is important to provide education and higher education opportunities to all, we need to also produce high quality human resources who would be relevant to the industry. Almost all of our 325,000 newborns enroll in Grade 1 at the right age and progress to GCE (O/L). About 70 percent of these students qualify for A/Ls, of which 63 percent enter university. However, only 17 percent of these potential graduates get the opportunity to enter state universities due to a lack of capacity.

It is evident, that our education system is an exclusive one, designed to filter students at various stages, to suit the number of positions available in state universities. It is not designed to support the aspirations of our youth and adults, and also does not contribute to the economic success of the country. The country urgently needs a higher education system that is opportunity-driven, accessible, and flexible while being a key driver of economic growth. It needs to be inclusive, providing flexible education that would produce professionals at all levels in a multitude of disciplines to satisfy the human resource requirements of the country so that no one is left behind.

People should be able to enter the system through multiple entry points and it should promote mobility within the tertiary section to increase graduation rates and allow individuals to smoothly sail through the system, based on their interests and abilities. (See graphic)

The proposed education system

The current education system is highly competitive and exam focused, due to the restricted number of placements available in universities. From their early stages to university level, students are trained to pass exams, resulting in rote learning without having a deep understanding of subjects. They also spend long hours studying for exams, neglecting other aspects of life. Such a system does not encourage creativity, out of the box thinking, taking calculated risks and innovation. Once the constraint of the number of available placements in universities is removed, the entire system will ease up so that students will be able to properly advance their knowledge, learn essential life skills, take flexible study paths and more importantly, enjoy their formative years. This will result in producing good and productive citizens.

The proposed education system will provide multiple pathways for students to advance their knowledge and to acquire necessary skills and find suitable employment. The multiple pathways allow students to choose the right track for themselves at critical junctures of their learning journey. Providing mobility within the system and flexible entry points, allows them to achieve their education and career goals even if they make incorrect choices at a given point. Also, this system allows for and promotes continuing education to adapt and acquire emerging skills and develop a workforce that does not have major skill gaps.


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