Singapore braces for challenges in the job market

Singapore’s workforce is grappling with the twin challenges of an aging population and job displacements due to technology.

According to a report on the burden of disease in Singapore between 1990 and 2017, the Southeast Asian nation surpassed Japan in 2017 to become the country with the longest life expectancy at birth — at nearly 85 years old.

Longer life expectancy, coupled with a low fertility rate, has shifted Singapore’s demographics and increased the proportion of older people in the country. As a result, the city state’s workforce is rapidly shrinking, becoming a pressure point for the economy.

According to Singapore’s Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, the government has been preparing for the challenge of an aging workforce “for the past 20 years.”

Singapore is in the midst of “reforming the education system for the young,” Ong told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Tuesday. He pointed out, however, that the challenge was really in helping older workers, as younger employees are “very adaptive.”

In fact, as part of efforts to engage the aging population in the economy, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced last week that the country will be raising the retirement age — from 62 years old, to 63 in 2022 and eventually to 65 in 2023.

Digital disruption

But an aging population is not the only challenge Singapore faces. Like the rest of the world, technological disruption is set to shift the employment landscape.

A study conducted jointly by technology firm Cisco and research agency Oxford Economics — which looked at the implications of technological change on workers in Southeast Asia — found that Singapore’s labor market faces the largest risk of job displacement over the next decade.

Singapore is tackling the problem by equipping the workforce with new skills.

Four years ago, the city state launched SkillsFuture — a national program that provides citizens with subsidies to upskill or develop their careers. The initiative is aimed at trying to retrain older workers to “adapt to the economy,” Ong said.

While not discounting the importance of understanding artificial intelligence and robotics, Ong stressed the need to “learn your current job well” and master the skills of your trade.

When “you learn it so well, you can use technology, you can use AI, to assist you do do it better,” he said.

If you don’t innovate and if you don’t change, technology will eat your lunch.

Tan Su Shan

group head of institutional banking at DBS

The education minister recognized that in the coming years, more work will have to be done for workers to effectively switch from “one industry to another,” and “between segments or value chain of the same industry.”

He noted the success of one such company in Singapore — DBS Bank, which managed to help workers’ transition between roles within the company.

To help fill the digital skills gap, the Singapore lender equipped bank tellers with the relevant skills to take on new functions across the company.

While “mundane work” will eventually be “replaced by machines,” personal relationships will not, said Tan Su Shan, group head of institutional banking at DBS, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Thursday.

She highlighted the importance of cultural change in the firm and for employees to understand the need to be adaptable and to learn new survival skills.

“If you don’t innovate and if you don’t change, technology will eat your lunch,” Tan said.

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