Singapore: Zee Yoong Kang

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Zee Yoong Kang From NTUC Learning Hub

Zee Yoong Kang from NTUC Learning Hub in Singapore talks to Jim Playfoot about generic skills, working with employers and the challenges facing Singapore in the 21st century

As CEO of the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) Learning Hub, Zee Yoong Kang is at the head of the largest training provider in Singapore. The NTUC traditionally operated within the sphere of industrial relations. Increasingly, they see themselves playing an active role in adult education and, in particular, skills development. Learning Hub - set up in 2004 out of the NTUC Computer Training Centre - has so far trained over 400,000 individuals - mainly adult learners - and offers specific courses in, amongst other things, soft skills and employability. Zee Yoong Kang also holds the post of Director of NTUC's Employability Enhancement Department, which coordinates Singapore's Job Re- creation Programme.

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The Challenges Of Re-skilling

We begin by talking about the current workforce dynamics in Singapore which throw up a set of challenges very different to many other economies. "Singaporean kids get a world class education. And we produce 25,000 graduates every year. The economy generates 250,000 new jobs every year. So our real challenge is in retraining the adult workforce to fulfil those jobs." He explains that the government in Singapore has invested heavily in retraining programmes. "The challenge is around moving from a manufacturing to a service sector economy." They are achieving this through heavy subsidies to support Singapore residents with 90% of the costs of retraining typically covered by public funds.

There is also a growing market in preparing foreign workers for the Singapore workforce with training in things like health and safety being a necessary step for many immigrants who look to secure a work permit. Beyond this, Zee sees a gradual increase in the need for retraining these workers in what he calls "basic skills". He defines these as "reading, writing and speaking properly". The work of the NTUC Learning Hub is interesting in that it deals very much in 'filling in' what other education fails to provide and is specifically focussed on the skills that are required for, or are applicable to, the work environment.

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Building Generic Skills

Our conversation shifts towards the issue of what Zee calls 'generic skills' (soft or employability skills). He believes in the importance of these skills - Learning Hub runs specific courses in both soft skills and employability - but he sees Singapore as some way off meeting the challenge. "There is formal course content which is approved and regulated by the Workforce Development Agency on developing generic skills. But we need more quality control." He goes further: "Generic skills, behaviours, mindset change - all these things are talked about a lot but not a lot of action has actually taken place on this. These skills do not permeate the education system and there is general consensus that this is a problem."

Having said that, he does believe that change is happening, and happening in the right place. "When I look at the education my children are getting, they have a lot more focus on project work, presentations". This, he thinks, is a very positive sign for the future of the Singaporean workforce. He talks about the broader education system in Singapore and the gradual move away from a purely academic model that began in the 1990s. He pinpoints the 'Teach Less, Learn More' initiative as a key turning point. "The focus is on team skills, communication. Students are now much more well rounded. We're starting to see the fruit of changes in education. We realised we couldn't out-study the Chinese and Indians so we needed to develop a new speciality, a new focus for education." This greater focus on skills, experiential learning and curriculum relevance is in the early stages but is hugely promising and may even provide a model for education around the world.

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Working With Employers

As part of the National Trade Union, the interface between education and industry lies at the heart of Zee's day to day activities. He believes passionately in the need for business to feed into the development and delivery of training and education. Around 90% of Learning Hub's training services are sold directly to businesses so this gives the organisation unique access to industry feedback. "There must be a governing council from industry that approves skills taught within the National Curriculum. This happens in Australia. However, it's very difficult to carry out in practice."

The current model in Singapore - where courses have to be designed (and are approved) according to the guidelines set by government - mitigates against a more flexible, reactive system that can accommodate continuous feedback from industry and that supports the individual tailoring of course content to specific employers. Although this system does rely, in part, on consultation with industry, Zee points out that "Government secretaries can only make changes once every quarter which is not responsive enough to industry's needs."

He suggests an alternative model that, he believes, would address the issue of relevance without compromising on quality. "Rather than using traditional skills councils, build up a smaller credible body of industry representatives who would not slow down the market. We should stop imposing a curriculum but have more quality control over providers. Basically, an accredited free market similar to the UK model." He concludes: "We want academic freedom in a controlled way."

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A Global Standard

We finish our conversation by thinking about the global situation, in light of the modern day large turnover of employees. There are challenges around the fact that employers only want to train for their immediate/specific corporate needs. In Zee's view, generic skills are not very interesting to employers as they have little to gain from providing this training if the employee then moves to a different job.

He cites the Philippines as an example of how rapid expansion in the provision of education can lead to a drop in quality control. There was, he says, "...too much emphasis on bits of paper, not enough on the content of education". The way forward, he believes, is to build an international consensus around working towards "a range of education standards that are globally recognized". This would serve not only the individuals who spend time and money on their education, but also businesses which would reap the rewards of quality assurance through rigorous policing of these standards.

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