Tucker’s Lens: Interview with Bruce Poh, CEO, Institute of Technical Education, Singapore

JCround
by Betsy Brown Ruzzi

My colleague, CIEB Director Betsy Brown Ruzzi, recently spoke with Bruce Poh, Director and CEO of Singapore’s Institute of Technical Education, about Singapore’s efforts to strengthen the country’s already strong vocational education and training system. In 2013, Singapore convened the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) Committee to develop recommendations to ensure that Singapore’s VET system is prepared for the demands of the future economy. The ASPIRE Committee released recommendations last summer, which are now being implemented under the SkillsFuture Council chaired by its Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Betsy Brown Ruzzi: What were the problems or challenges that led to the request from the Prime Minister to conduct this review?  In the report, it was noted that 9 out of 10 of Singapore’s ITE and polytechnic graduates found a job within 6 months of graduation. What were you concerned about?
bod-bruce-poh-geok-huatBruce Poh: We believe we have a strong VET system that serves industry very well, but we were looking into the future. Trends in some countries show developments which are of concern, and which our government wants to address. One, there is an increasing number of students desiring a college degree. This is especially true, as more families are becoming more affluent and aspirations are very high. In Asian societies, having a degree is highly revered. Done to the extreme, there are issues. For example, in some countries like Taiwan, more than 90% of each school cohort have degrees, but many graduates are under- or unemployed. Even if there is full employment, people are still pursuing paper qualifications. Another trend is that people are not going to employment right away. Instead, they pursue another certificate, another diploma or degree without developing deep skills. And a third trend is that people train for a particular area and then switch to another sector. Finally, industry is always changing. So it is no longer the case that it is possible to be trained for life. Instead, throughout life, you need to retool and possibly change careers.

BBR: Were there any changes in the economy that motivated these changes?
BP: Our government believes that companies could do better in terms of productivity and innovation. In the past, many companies in Singapore employ cheap foreign and semi-skilled labor, which yield low productivity. The government has put a limit on the influx of foreign labor, so that companies will employ more local trained manpower, and with these, work towards improving productivity.

BBR: How and by whom will the ASPIRE recommendations be implemented?
BP: The ASPIRE Committee’s recommendations are now taken over by the SkillsFuture Council, which is chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam. The SkillsFuture Council will be responsible for driving the national effort to develop skills for the future, and help Singaporeans develop a future based on skills mastery and lifelong career development.

BBR: How does this set of reforms build on the last set of reforms in this arena?
BP: These new reforms will be a watershed in the education landscape. While previous reforms have been focused on pre-employment training, going forward, lifelong learning, or learning throughout life will be a key focus. And the emphasis in all these reforms is skills deepening and mastery. So this is a major change. Singapore’s Education Minister, Mr Heng Swee Keat, has likened this change to entering a new frontier, a pioneering effort. To do this, he has shared that there are three shifts that are needed. The first is a shift from learning for grades to learning for mastery; the second, from learning in school to learning throughout life; and third, from learning for work to learning for life.

SIngaporebakerVETBBR: We studied continuing education and it is not easy. Adults make choices and it is hard to steer them to what the labor market needs.
BP: I agree and this continues to be a challenge in Singapore, too, but we are trying to do something to address this challenge. Recently, our government announced the enhanced internship programme, whereby a part of the training would be spent in a company to enable workplace immersion. Although such experience can be replicated in education institutions through authentic learning environments, nothing is better than the actual workplace itself. So when we send students over to the workplace, we must ensure that the internship is well crafted, structured and with mentors to mentor our students.

BBR: Did you go to Switzerland to study their system?
BP: I have visited Switzerland, Germany and Denmark and am familiar with the European models in both internship and apprenticeship. Unlike the Europeans, it is very difficult for us to shift the model of training from pre-employment training to apprenticeship right away. There will be resistance, for example, from parents, who prefer the full-time pre-employment training mode for their children. So one of the things that Singapore is going to do is to extend training by about 1.5 years, under the ‘SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programme’ for fresh ITE and polytechnic graduates to do an apprenticeship-style training after they have graduated from ITE or the polytechnic. To better prepare the industry to kick-start this, the government is providing S$5,000 for graduates to sign on. Companies will be provided with up to S$15,000 to offset the cost of developing and providing the structured training.

BBR: In Switzerland, intermediary organizations play a big part in baseline training and career development. Will you utilize those kinds of organizations in Singapore?
BP: In Singapore, this responsibility rests with post-secondary institutions like the ITE and polytechnics, to gather employers, through sectorial leads, for discussions on the industry’s needs of the future. Of course, on the employers’ side, some have trade or industry associations to support these activities to achieve the outcomes. There is an opportunity for these associations to act as intermediaries. This would be welcomed, but the burden will primarily be on the ITE and polytechnics to do career counseling, course development and job placement. Unlike the European countries, Singapore does not have a long tradition of apprenticeship. That is why we have the SkillsFuture Council to look at it and get everyone to buy in. The work is not just for post-secondary institutions and companies. We are also targeting secondary school students, school teachers and parents. We have this “Education and Career Guidance” initiative, something which we learnt from Switzerland. One of the takeaways is that they have excellent career counselors. We need excellent career guidance starting in secondary school. We are now recruiting career counselors for secondary schools, ITE and polytechnics. We also want to educate parents about what is in store for their children in industry. In summary, we want to help students make better and more knowledgeable career choices. Otherwise, we end up with paper qualifications that have limited value. With limited spaces in public universities, students end up enrolling in private universities instead of polytechnics, and going to private universities which are expensive, paying a lot to get a degree, even in areas with very little demand.

BBR: When we were last in Singapore and asked about apprenticeship-style education, we were told that Singapore had looked at European apprenticeship style programs and concluded that they would not work in Singapore because there was no tradition in Asia creating a culture in which companies would offer enough placements for apprentices. Has that judgment changed?  Why?
BP: This observation is still valid. We still do not have the tradition, but we are going to try to change that. We are trying to adapt the European apprenticeship model: not by doing away with full- time vocational education, but tweaking it through the “Earn and Learn” and “Enhanced Internship” initiatives. In a way, we are adapting to the European model, but not entirely. Several things persuaded us to go in this direction. First, there is leakage in the system. Students sometimes leave a particular course before completing; or, they are enrolled into National Service and then, after National Service, they switch to another career altogether. Because of this, we think that it might be good to familiarise them with the career they were trained for and to develop deep skills. When they complete National Service, there is a greater chance for them to enter the industry they were trained for. From the industry front, we also thought we needed higher productivity and more innovation. We see this approach as a way to accomplish that, integrating education, manpower development, employment and training altogether. Skills are changing so rapidly, so perhaps it is an appropriate time to take the bull by its horns and adapt.

BBR: What is the difference between an internship and a place-and-train program?
BP: They are entirely different. Internship is done while you are in full-time education, and as part of your curriculum, say, 3 to 9 months, will be spent in the industry, to inject the realism of industry into your program and learning. Earn-and-learn is apprenticeship, where you are actually a company employee.

BBR: We understand that your plan calls for strengthening the guidance and career support system in Singapore.  If you can’t predict the future, how do you advise students of what they should get ready to know and do? What kind of information systems do you have to help career guidance counselors do their job?
BP: Counselors will undergo extensive training, providing them with a realistic understanding of the industry and the economy. We will need to continually upgrade our career counselors of the latest trends and careers in industry. Under the whole-of-government approach, relevant government agencies, like our Economic Development Board, can provide information about the kinds of industry we are attracting to the country and the jobs in the industry.

And, for many secondary school students, the first step after secondary school is to step into a course that is related to a career. So, it is critical that they understand what courses are available in ITE; what are the skills needed; what is the nature of the job and its requirements before they enroll into a course. Such guidance helps them make informed choices.

BBR: Singapore made hard choices about economic strategy. How does this relate to the kind of economy you want to have?
BP: The government’s approach to solving problems starts by putting ourselves in a position of strength, and then makes a long term strategic plan. Don’t wait until you have a weak economy to fix things because it will be a lot harder to fix. Although the ruling party lost a few seats, they are still a big majority in the government. Because of this stability in government, they are strong; they can make tough choices. The founding Prime Minister said rightly: “I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.”

SingaporeSkillsBBR: You are making changes in your skills framework and career progression frameworks?  Why? How will the framework be altered over time?
BP: The SkillsFuture Council understands that employers’ main focus may not be on developing deep skills. The Singapore Workforce Development Agency is therefore tasked to develop the skills framework for the major sectors of industry. The framework will have progression pathways for skilled technicians to upgrade to the next level of skills. When they upgrade, there should be a corresponding increase in pay to match the higher-level skills. Hence, we are moving towards higher pay for higher skills, in career progression. Every course will need to be reviewed to make sure that the curriculum is always updated and needed for the economy. It is a dynamic process. The curriculum is constantly updated. For pre-employment training, it is done by the post-secondary institutions like the polytechnics and ITE, with Ministry of Education. For continuing education and training (CET), it’s with the Workforce Development Agency.

BBR: What is the timeline for the SkillsFuture Council to initiate the work?
BP: Some SkillsFuture Council programmes and initiatives are beginning to be launched now, but the majority of programs will begin next. One of the things we want to encourage is lifelong learning, so the government is giving a S$500 credit to every Singaporean over age 25 to use for training and development. Over the years, the government will continue to top up this account, to inculcate a culture of lifelong learning. It is a huge task. Changing culture and mindset is not easy.

The key areas in which the SkillsFuture Council will create programs are:

  • Education and career guidance
  • Enhanced Internships
  • Young Talent Program
  • Individual Learning Portfolios,
  • SkillsFuture Credit
  • P-Max (Enhanced Place and Train Programme)
  • SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programs
  • SkillsFuture Study Awards
  • SkillsFuture Modular Courses
  • SkillsFuture Mid-Career Enhanced Subsidy
  • SkillsFuture Fellowships
  • Sectoral Manpower Plans
  • SkillsFuture Mentors
  • SkillsFuture Leadership Development Initiative
  • Innovation Lab

 
BBR: Thank you very much for speaking with us today.
BP: It has been my pleasure.