Rise of the digital workforce

Insights

Rise of the digital workforce

By Lee Chew Chiat, Public Sector Industry SEA Leader

As published in the Business Times on 04 February 2016 (prior to the Singapore Budget 2016 announcement)

As S'pore's workforce ages, it needs to become ageless as well to stay relevant in a changing landscape.

Singapore has only one precious, and very scarce, resource: its people. Every individual - regardless of age - has something meaningful to contribute to our economy and society at large, and must be empowered to do so. With an ageing population where one in five residents will be above the age of 65 by 2030, Singapore will need to find ways not only to ensure that it does not leave the vulnerable segment of older workers behind, but also to leverage their cumulative wealth of knowledge and experience.

This is easier said than done. With highly intelligent robots encroaching into the domains that once exclusively belonged to humans, many jobs in the food and beverage (F&B) sector that exist today may be gone tomorrow. These robots do not simply make an employee more efficient, they have the potential to completely replace them. The impact of this trend must not be taken lightly. For starters, Singapore has some 2,500 restaurants, and this does not even include the other players in the value chain.

Indeed, the robots are already at our shores. At TungLok's central kitchen located in Tai Seng Street, for instance, robots are tossing kung pao chicken in woks, mimicking the stir-frying action of a chef. Meanwhile, drone waiters, navigating with the use of infra-red sensors, whizz above the heads of diners charted by a computer programme in Timbre Group's restaurants.

And lower-skilled workers such as butchers, dishwashers and cashiers are not the only ones at risk of automation. As technology advances, we will see an expansion in the range of tasks that can be automated with machines by breaking down "cognitive" activities into smaller, well-defined tasks. Correspondingly, in a recent study conducted by Deloitte Southeast Asia on Singapore's F&B sector, a number of fairly high-skilled jobs such as executive and assistant roles within the finance and operations functions also face high probabilities of automation.

It does seem like a Luddite's nightmare of job displacement is coming true. This is especially worrying for older workers aged 50 years and above in Singapore, with about 63 per cent employed in low-skilled jobs, who are the most likely to be affected by such a disruption as a significant proportion of jobs in the F&B sector are low-skilled.

Currently, this age group faces the greatest risk of downtime, with a 61 per cent re-entry rate into employment within a 12-month period of job redundancy compared to a re-entry rate of 77 per cent for those below 30 years old . Furthermore, the older workers account for a significant proportion - close to a third - of job redundancies in Singapore.

SILVER LINING

The reality is that technology can, and will, be used to eliminate jobs. Understandably, this process is easier for some activities than others, but studies have shown that even tasks that seem difficult to automate can still be transformed by machines. With cognitive intelligence, decision-making can be automated with the use of diagnostic and analytical support tools, and humans will only be needed in the last mile to make judgements. This will enable organisations to do more with fewer employees - and in some situations, fully replace jobs with automation.

But the silver lining is that technology will also create new jobs, giving us the possibility to redesign work and create growth opportunities and greater value for businesses. As Singapore continues to accelerate towards its Smart Nation vision, technology is likely to continue to impact work, workers and organisations in profound ways. The resulting job displacement will be inevitable, and thus it is essential to adopt a pre-emptive approach towards improving the long-term employability of workers and, in particular, that of older workers.

Rather than looking for a new job only after being made redundant, individual workers should seek to understand their job profiles and job automation probabilities, benchmark themselves against other occupations, and move towards more secure and rewarding jobs. With rising life expectancies, there is also a need to plan for longer working lives while meeting the worker's needs for self-fulfilment and social inclusion.

More importantly, governments and businesses alike should actively work to identify vulnerable individuals based on their job automation probabilities, and equip them with the necessary tools and skills to succeed in new roles.

Perhaps then, the right question for us to be asking at this point in time is not whether Singapore's older workers will still have jobs, but whether they will have the appropriate set of skills to perform the better, higher value-added jobs in tandem with the changes.

When the inevitable disappearance of some jobs occurs, a mismatch of skillsets with job requirements is likely to be the main reason for long employment downtimes among older workers. Identifying a possible future career and then attaining the relevant skills to become competent in the role can take a significant amount of time, and any effort that we can make towards reducing this time period will translate into a more productive workforce, and reduced financial and psychological stress for the individual worker.

A number of measures have already been put in place by the government to enhance the employability of older workers in Singapore, such as the WorkPro scheme, to help employers adopt progressive workplace age management practices, facilitate job redesign and improve workplace practices, as well as to encourage employers to recruit and retain back-to-work locals and mature workers to meet their manpower needs. These initiatives are steps in the right direction. Nevertheless, their efficacy could be enhanced with a deeper knowledge of the older workforce, who face the highest risk of job replacement with the encroachment of technology and automation.

For a start, these schemes can be enhanced with a more targeted approach. SkillsFuture initiatives, for example, could be especially useful for older workers whose jobs are at a high risk of automation, and the predictive model can go some way in helping to identify these individuals. In addition, the knowledge of job automation probabilities can help government agencies plan tertiary education curriculums to prepare the future workforce for tomorrow's challenges.

Knowing which segments of the workforce to target also means that initiatives can be customised for fit. Older workers, for instance, have different learning needs and may require different delivery methods. As we move into an era where individuals are working beyond the minimum retirement age, formal qualifications to recognise the skills of adult workers that have been acquired through work and experience will also be necessary. This move will be valuable for older workers whose initial qualifications may be deemed outdated.

In fact, in the wake of longer working lives and the rise in employment among older workers, it is timely to pay more attention to demand-side issues and implement appropriate measures to strengthen the employability of older workers. With the knowledge of the factors driving or hindering mobility of individuals in their late 50s - who will be most at risk of long-term unemployment - more focus can be placed on improving the employability of older workers and facilitating greater labour mobility as a way of promoting employment at an older age.

FOCUS ON THE "HEARTWARE"

Efforts should also be made to encourage businesses in Singapore to promote longer working lives and invest in training of workers even after they reach the age of 50. Richer life experiences aside, there may be a good business case for retaining and training older employees: with lower turnover costs and fewer absences from work, they could prove to be more cost-effective than their younger counterparts in the long haul.

Ultimately, beyond all the hardware, Singaporeans must focus on the "heartware" - the culture, mindsets and attitudes of the government, businesses and society at large towards lifelong learning and lifelong employability. Singapore's workforce may be an ageing one, but it will need to become an ageless one in order to remain relevant in the changing competitive landscape. Indeed, with longer working lives, governments and organisations will need to look towards the future in preparation for the next generation because where, when and how people obtain an education, enter the workforce and upgrade their skills will evolve constantly. This transition will be complex, maybe even difficult, but the real silver lining is that it has already begun.

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