Exclusive: All the right tools

When it comes to education and training, no title has been more articulated over the past two years in Singapore than “SkillsFuture”. While the basic premise of SkillsFuture is about building skills, the technicalities behind it can appear more elusive. In this special report, HRM Asia charts the progress of SkillsFuture and its relevance for HR.

Ever since it made its “debut” in Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2014 National Day Rally Speech, the “SkillsFuture” programme has been ever-present, its title appearing in subsequent rallies, budget statements, and ministerial dialogues.

The name has been plastered online, in newspapers and on television screens, made airwaves on radio, and has even appeared on bus-stop advertisements.

But despite being the talk of the town, and having been a part of the Singaporean fabric for two years already, SkillsFuture remains an enigma to many business leaders and HR professionals. With thousands of courses, programmes and initiatives involved, it has proven difficult to grasp what options are both relevant and available to each individual organisation.

So what exactly is SkillsFuture? Even Singapore Government ministers acknowledge that the platform is so broad, different people will have different interpretations of it.

Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung says many people associate SkillsFuture with the SkillsFuture Credit scheme, the $500 offered to every Singaporean aged over 25 years, for them to enrol in training and development courses of their liking, either learning new skills or upgrading their current skillsets.

“But the Credit (scheme) is only a small, though important, part of SkillsFuture,” he wrote in a Straits Times commentary piece in April.

“What is SkillsFuture? Not a funding scheme, a training programme, or an organisation,” he wrote. “Mastery, meritocracy, and ‘you’ – that is what SkillsFuture is about.”

What is SkillsFuture?

HRM Asia has had its own attempt to make sense of the complex, but ultimately comprehensive web of SkillsFuture.

We see it as a never-ending cycle. It is a national platform that will enable all Singaporeans – at whatever their starting point, be it age or career phase – to plot their own pathway to a brighter future, by developing themselves to their fullest potential.

It is a platform that will pave the way for Singaporeans to continue retooling themselves through skills development: there is no end destination to this journey.

Assisting this re-tooling of skillsets is a diverse ecosystem of education and training, employer recognition, and an attempt to build a nationwide culture of lifelong learning.

A well-planned history

Initially tasked with leading the SkillsFuture “movement” was the SkillsFuture Council, with Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Tharman Shanmugaratnam as its Chairman.

The SkillsFuture Council got the ball rolling by holding its first-ever meeting on November 5, 2014.

On May 20 this year, the SkillsFuture Council and the National Productivity Council were officially replaced by the Council for Skills, Innovation, and Productivity (CSIP).

DPM Tharman again chairs this council, which comprises of 26 members from the Government, industry, unions, and educational and training institutions.

In addition, a new statutory baord under the Ministry of Education was recently officially launched. SkillsFuture Singapore is tasked with driving and co-ordinating the implementation of Skills Future.

SkillsFuture nuts and bolts

Two core components epitomise SkillsFuture: skills mastery and lifelong learning.

Skills mastery refers to attaining deep skillsets in whichever craft one chooses. This notion goes way beyond simply excelling at one’s job and having paper qualifications.

“Skills mastery is more than being good at what you do currently; it is a mindset of continually striving towards greater excellence through knowledge, application and experience,” the SkillsFuture website states.

Lifelong learning, meanwhile, refers to an endless quest for knowledge and the inculcation of skills.

Underpinning SkillsFuture are various programmes and initiatives including SkillsFuture Credit. This aims to encourage individuals to take ownership of their skills advancement at all stages of their careers and lives.

In January this year, all Singaporeans aged 25 and over received an opening credit of S$500, which will not expire. The credit can be utilised in addition to current course subsidies to pay for a wide array of approved skills-related courses.

The Singapore Government will also provide periodic top-ups to ensure individuals can accumulate their credit over time.

The other part of SkillsFuture entails programmes and initiatives for individuals. These are further grouped into six recipient categories: students, employees (early career), employees (mid-career onwards), employers, training providers, and the Learning Throughout Life platform, that will target all learners.

Specific programmes

SkillsFuture is all about skills, training, and lifelong learning, so you can’t run away from the fact that HR departments will be naturally involved across the board. Having said that, there are some programmes within the SkillsFuture platform that have more direct and immediate connections to those charged with developing skills on an organisational level.

One of these highly-relevant programmes is P-Max, which is especially useful for SMEs looking to hire talented professionals, managers, and executives (PMEs) who can bring a whole new range of skillsets and expertise.

This is a place-and-train programme that seeks to assist SMEs in screening and matching appropriate job-searching PMEs for specific vacancies.

Participating SMEs will be afforded training in areas such as progressive HR practices, effective communication, and how to collaborate with newly-recruited PMEs. In addition, SMEs that succesfully complete a six-month post training follow-up and retain their newly hired PMEs will be eligible for a one-off “Assistance Grant” of S$5,000.

SMEs can also tap onto the SkillsFuture Mentors programme to assist in their development efforts.

This seeks to improve SMEs’ competencies in learning and development, and to beef up their value propositions as employers of choice, furnishing positive career advancement and growth prospects for candidates.

Shortlisted professionals undergo a panel interview before being chosen as mentors. Those who are selected will undertake an orientation course before they are matched with SMEs.

The mentors will then help participating SMEs improve their frameworks and processes in learning and development, and will also coach managers and supervisors in enhanced training delivery methods.

Another initiative especially pertinent to HR is the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programme.

This entails a place-and-train scheme for fresh polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education graduates.  It aims to provide these young talents with prospects to continue their learning via both structured on-the-job training and institution-based training.

Fresh graduates will undergo a 12- to 18-month structured training programme, depending on the sector and job requirements.

To be on this programme, applicants need to be shortlisted and interviewed by participating employers.

Successful candidates will be offered a job with competitive industry starting wages and relevant staff benefits. The starting salary is dependent on the job role as well as the employer.

Those who finish this programme will obtain industry-recognised qualifications, and a S$5,000 sign-on incentive for joining their host companies.

Amid the fierce talent warfare, this programme allows businesses to differentiate themselves by leveraging on young talents who have a burning desire to prove that age and inexperience are not insurmountable obstacles.

Two programmes place a particularly strong emphasis on skills mastery, enabling HR to groom talents specifically in niche areas.

The SkillsFuture Fellowships programme, which took effect this year, acknowledge and develop Singaporeans with deep skills. These skills will have been acquired through significant work experience in the same industry or occupation, and recipients will also have a track record of contribution to the skills development of others, such as through being a coach or mentor.

The fellowship provides a cash award of S$10,000 to 100 individuals annually for them to tackle a mix of education and training options in their chosen fields.

The SkillsFuture Study Awards, meanwhile, are for individuals in their early and mid-level careers.  They provide S$5,000 to the individual recipients to further develop their skills in future growth clusters.

The $5,000 can be utilised to defray out-of-pocket expenses associated with the courses taken.

Priority sectors identified by the Government include advanced manufacturing, hospitality, social services, and early childhood education.

Another initiative under SkillsFuture, the Industry Manpower Plans (IMPs), aims to plot a detailed roadmap for different economic sectors, including HR itself. Each IMP will aim to identify the future skills required, and formulate a blueprint for advancing those skillsets in the local workforce.

The IMP will also map out skills-based career progression pathways and suggest ways to improve HR practices and working conditions in each sector. The IMP is managed by a Sectoral Tripartite Committee, made up of representatives of relevant employers, unions, and the Government.

So far, IMPs have been unveiled for the Hotel, Retail, Built Environment, Public Bus, and Food Services sectors.

In September last year, the HR Sectoral Tripartite Committee was formed with the brief of developing the HR Sectoral Manpower Plan, a key initiative of which is the National HR Professional Certification Framework which is due to be launched in the middle of next year.

What does it all mean for HR?

According to Patrick Tay, Assistant Secretary General of the National Trades Union Congress, there are two key aspects of SkillsFuture for HR to watch out for.

“There are SkillsFuture programmes such as Earn and Learn as well as others that employers can utilise to strengthen the Singaporean core and local manpower in this tight labour market,” he says.

Tay notes that SkillsFuture Credit will also have flow-on effects for HR teams focused on skills development.

“This will encourage individually-initiated training to ensure workers stay ready, relevant and resilient,” he says.

“It goes beyond picking up employer-supported skills, and the credits will help workers stay productive, engaged and employable.”

On that front, it is worth noting that the SkillsFuture Credit is only for individual-initiated training. HR departments are not allowed to meddle with an individual’s credit.

Employers are not allowed to direct staff to use their credit on any particular course or training. “It (SkillsFuture Credit) is not intended to pay for training provided by employers, which should continue to be borne by employers,” the SkillsFuture website says.

Views from the HR community      

While overwhelmingly positive, the HR community in Singapore is still unsure about how the SkillsFuture platform will work in practice. This was the key message espoused by several senior HR practitioners that HRM Asia reached out to for this report.

Rachel Foo, Chief HR Officer for Nielsen in Southeast Asia, North Asia, and the Pacific, says more needs to be done to ensure that the larger HR community is aware of how the programmes are evolving, so HR professionals can integrate their companies’ internal development plans with the broader national agenda.

“It is a matter of more active engagement of the employers and HR community, and to some extent, engaging the employees to gather more inputs,” says Foo.

She explains her organisation is still trying to understand more on how it can leverage and support its associates’ development. 

James Foo, Head of Group HR at ABR Holdings, says both he and a majority of his HR counterparts are confused about the SkillsFuture Credit initiative in particular.

“Although the HR community is aware of the basic information, there is confusion pertaining to the unknown ‘periodic top-ups’ in terms of the timing and credit amounts involved,” he says.

“It would be helpful if the top-up credit and timeframes could be made transparent early, which would allow Singaporeans to better plan which course(s) they want to use the credits for.”

Eddy Neo, HR Director, Ingersoll Rand, says SkillsFuture is not yet on his “professional radar screen”.

“I see this more as a personal skill-upgrading effort that is individually-driven (by workers themselves),” he says. “They are free to pursue their own areas of upgrading, without having to ensure alignment to their job.”

Training providers reap rewards

With training providers also forming a key part of the overall SkillsFuture movement, training firms specialising in HR courses are witnessing a surge in business.

David Ang, Director of Human Capital Singapore, says the Continuing Education and Training provider has around 45 modules offered in the SkillsFuture Credit directory. He estimates there has been a 10-15% increase in business revenue since the platform was launched.

Lithan, a digital skills training provider, says it has witnessed a 35% increase in its student enrolments over the same period.

“Twenty-two percent of the increase can be directly attributed to students who have used their SkillsFuture Credit to help pay for their course fees,” says Leslie Loh, CEO and Founder of Lithan.

“The increase in student enrolments has resulted in increased revenue.”


What about foreign employees?

The key objective of SkillsFuture is to upgrade the skillsets of the Singaporean workforce specifically. But while SkillsFuture is for Singaporeans, organisations comprise of both local and foreign staff.

That means HR departments will have to balance this national programme against the need to offer training and career development opportunities to all employees regardless of nationality.

Rachel Foo, Chief HR Officer for Nielsen in Southeast Asia, North Asia, and the Pacific, says HR Professionals will have their work cut out in ensuring opportunities are also available to foreign employees in Singapore.

She says one key challenge for the HR community is to carefully manage the diverse workforce in Singapore, with its healthy mixture of both locals and foreign staff.


Did you know?

As of October 17 this year, there were a total of 1,535 search results for HR courses being offered under the SkillsFuture Credit programme.

Programmes range from part-time diplomas and professional certificates, to Masters and doctorate-level courses.


Baking classes, anyone?

The assertion by Patrick Tay, Assistant Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress, that SkillsFuture Credit goes beyond picking up employer-supported skills captures the key intention behind SkillsFuture.

SkillsFuture is not just solely about upgrading the skills which are relevant to one’s career; it can also be about picking up new ones.

For example, people can use their credit to sign up for baking courses, pottery classes, coffee barista skills lessons and even sewing classes.


ST Engineering signs up

Singapore Technologies Engineering (ST Engineering) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the then Singapore Workforce Development Agency last year, signalling its support for the SkillsFuture platform.

The organisation will sponsor at least 100 technical employees in the Skills Future Earn and Learn programme over the next three years. The selected staff will undertake training in Aerospace Engineering, Marine Engineering, Precision Engineering, Logistics Management and InfoComm Technology.

They will receive both classroom and structured on-the-job training, eventually earning industry-recognised qualifications.

To further advance the careers of its staff, the firm will also nominate its experienced employees to garner deep-specialised skills through the SkillsFuture Study Awards and the SkillsFuture Fellowships.


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