Friday, 11 July 2014

Helping students make informed career choices

By Ng Jing Yng, TODAY, 10 Jul 2014

As an education beat reporter who meets students regularly, I would often ask them about their aspirations. The younger ones would say: “Mummy asked me to find a job that earns a lot of money.” Others would shrug their shoulders and smile sheepishly.

Like many, I once thought that is a phase every one goes through before one finds his or her sweet spot in life.

But after attending a dialogue session between students and members of the Applied Study in Polytechnics and Institute of Technical Education Review (ASPIRE) committee in January, I felt more guideposts could be provided to help students navigate their paths. Industry players have raised concerns over young people not knowing what they want, resulting in some following trends blindly. Some students also say that they know their career preferences only much later, during tertiary education, but by then, it may be too late for them to change course. A recent study trip to Switzerland with the ASPIRE committee provided further proof of the need to provide career guidance to students from young to empower them to make informed choices.

Switzerland’s 26 cantons (districts) have at least one career centre each and it receives children as young as 13 years old. Teachers organise visits to the centres and share their thoughts on various occupations in class. Concurrently, career counsellors visit schools to meet each child. Longer counselling sessions — with the inclusion of psychometric tests — can also be arranged for free at the nearest career centre. At the career centre in Bern city, half of its approximately 5,000 visitors last year were below 20 years old.

Swiss career counsellor Liselotte Stricker noted: “Students come to career centres to learn about their likes and dislikes. They have their favourite occupation, but they will also find out if their wishes are realistic.”

Other counsellors say they work with students through their secondary school years as passions evolve with time.

Singaporean Georgina Zoss-Koh, who is married to a Swiss and resides in Zurich, shared how her two sons benefitted from early career guidance. Both boys, now age 18 and 16, took psychometric tests at their local career centre to assess their strengths and preferences as well as spoke to counsellors on advancement options. Swiss students in secondary school will have a rough idea of the job nature and where their interests lie, she said.


Singapore is not starting from scratch on this. There are six career centres under the Singapore Workforce Development Agency islandwide, providing adults with advice on continual education and job matching.

The tertiary institutes also have career offices offering counselling and internships with companies. In schools, the Ministry of Education incorporated career guidance lessons into secondary schools this year, while an online portal ( is available for students to explore their interests through self-assessment tests, among other things.

Nevertheless, from conversations with students and educators, the missing element seems to be the human touch. There is a need for counsellors to help students make sense of psychometric test results and advise them on their options.

Singapore teachers are laden with teaching and other administrative duties, resulting in career guidance inadvertently placed on the back burner.

As such, there is a need for trained personnel to administer psychometric tests and evaluate findings for a younger clientele. These counsellors also have to be aware of pathways in the education system to give advice accordingly.

We can extend the services of existing career centres to a younger crowd. Their locations in the heartlands make them accessible, while tie-ups with companies could help students secure internships in various industries. Students can also receive insights on labour market trends through data collated by these career centres. For psychometric tests, we can ride on existing resources such as MOE’s We can also consider how the Swiss caters to various needs, using simpler pen-and-paper questionnaires or flashcards.


Early career guidance can also help parents play a supporting role in their children’s passions.

Ms Stricker said counselling sessions give students an avenue to share their thoughts confidentially. But when parents hold a different opinion, there could be joint counselling sessions.

She even recounted counselling an entire family, including the grandfather. The parents wanted the academic path while the grandfather, a craftsman, preferred the vocational path. After several sessions, the family accepted the child’s decision to pursue an apprenticeship.

For the Swiss, another outcome from their early career guidance system is greater societal acceptance for vocational education.

Parents become more aware of advancement prospects in skilled industries after visiting career centres with their children.

It is normal for Singaporeans parents to be concerned about the prospects in certain jobs or their children having short-lived interests. Counsellors can reassure these parents by providing information on the labour market and mapping out progression opportunities.

Using scientific results from psychometric tests can also convince parents of their child’s inclinations.


How about those already in tertiary institutions who are pursuing courses outside their career interests? Some of them enrolled in these courses without knowing their preferred career choice.

I have also met students who were not aware of prerequisites for their preferred courses and were left with few options later on. For these students, help could come in the form of bridging modules so they could make an easier transition to a new course. This could be considered for certain industries that are facing manpower shortage, such as healthcare or early childhood. If science is required for health sciences courses, for example, there could be preparatory classes.

Bearing in mind the need for a critical mass for these classes, the three Institute of Technical Education campuses can collaborate to offer lessons. The five polytechnics can also work together on this.

When students’ strengths are identified and nurtured, many will go on to succeed in their respective fields.

We can definitely do more to help them play to their strengths and achieve their full potential.

Ng Jing Yng is a senior reporter at TODAY who covers the education beat.

*The ASPIRE committee, which is looking to revamp poly and ITE education, will be giving its recommendations later this year.

European lessons for S’pore’s apprenticeship system
By Ng Jing Yng, TODAY, 28 Jul 2014

“Practice, practice and more practice” — this was how a museum guide described artist Vincent Van Gogh’s life during a recent visit to the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands.

It was aptly put, especially for a man who painted multiple versions of his renowned sunflower piece and 35 self-portraits — all in the name of perfecting his art.

But Van Gogh was not always this talented. His artistic flair was honed after decades of practice. He used a perspective frame for years to improve his sense of artistic proportion. He also repeatedly painted flower still lifes to handle colours better.

Similarly, this idea of acquiring a skill through constant practice is what an apprenticeship aims to do.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Applied Study in Polytechnics and Institute of Technical Education Review (ASPIRE) committee is now trying to instil this belief in Singapore. In recent months, MOE officials and ASPIRE committee members visited European cities to study different apprenticeship and vocational systems.

Travelling with them, I saw how a high regard for skills benefits a society economically and creates a range of interesting career options. Singapore can definitely do more in schools, workplaces and society to raise the value of skills and skills training.


In Germany and Switzerland, about 60 per cent of each school cohort opts for the apprenticeship route. Students cite the attraction of gaining skills while studying, which increases their employability after graduation.

Over their two to four years in vocational school, they could be working for three days and studying for two days. This work-study approach reinforces their skills and knowledge.

In Singapore, our polytechnics and ITEs have internships. But this is not compulsory across all courses and employers have said that the internship length — between one and six months — is too short.

There is also the ITE traineeship scheme, which mirrors the European work-study arrangement. This option, however, suffers from both low take-up and high attrition rates. Employers also felt the students are too young to assimilate into the workplace.

Looking at the European examples, it is perhaps time to move from an internship to an apprenticeship system for ITEs and polytechnics. The difference is that apprentices acquire deep skills and perform meaningful tasks in the workplace.

What can we learn from the Europeans on this?

First, close collaboration between schools and companies is needed in setting up a strong mentoring system. Employers should also participate in the selection process for better matching of students with companies.

In German companies, apprentices generally undergo an interview with trainers to assess their interests and skills. Full-time staff members are then assigned to train and provide regular feedback to apprentices. These mentors also liaise with school teachers to track the students’ progress. Apprentices interviewed said tapping the knowledge of experienced craftsmen enriches their learning and eases their transition to the workplace.

Second, setting quality standards for apprenticeships will raise the prestige of skills training and ensure that students are being trained properly.

In Holland, companies accepting apprentices are accredited by organisations representing each sector. These accredited firms comply by having a workplace mentor and meeting stipulated training goals. In turn, they receive grants of up to €2,500 (S$4,200) a year for each apprentice. Employers are able to design better apprenticeship programmes with training guidelines. Smaller firms can also use the subsidies to offset training costs.

If such incentives are available here, companies could use the funds for outreach purposes. For instance, German and Swiss companies have two-day internships for students to get a feel for the industry. Some have even built smaller workbenches for the younger ones. Parents and students said this helped them to learn about different occupations and create acceptance of skilled jobs.


As a society, we can do more to promote the importance of skills. Singapore companies such as CKE Manufacturing view internships as apprenticeships, investing in mentors and designing meaningful tasks for interns. Their practices should be commended publicly, so that others can learn and contribute to an apprenticeship culture here.

Human resource experts have called on the public sector — as Singapore’s largest employer — to take the lead in signalling that skills beyond paper qualifications are valued. While there seems to be more non-degree officers rising through the ranks, the Civil Service could be more transparent on how it rewards non-academic skills and experience.

Private firms can also play their part. In Germany and Switzerland, companies hold open houses and take part in career fairs where vocational students can find out about advancement pathways. Such openness assures parents and youths that there are opportunities in the vocational route.

Singaporean academic Lynn Lim from the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland explained that the popularity of the Swiss vocational path “starts from the recognition of graduates and the provision of equal employment opportunities … by local firms, multinational firms and more significantly the governmental or public sector”.

“(This) eventually makes the society and families realise that a youth is provided with a recognised path of learning and opportunity, which is not offered only to those who go to the traditional academic route of education,” she said.

There is also value in considering the proposal by former Singapore Workforce Development Agency chief executive Ong Ye Kung to codify the knowledge and skills to maintain standards in the industry. In Western countries, there is codification to set rules on how things should be done, down to the smallest details such as cutting carrots.

Mr Ong also suggested forming professional associations or guilds to instil professional pride within the trade and promote continual education.

Singaporean Georgina Zoss-Koh, who lives with her family in Zurich, admires the Swiss apprenticeship system, citing as an example how gardening apprentices learn to trim plants and acquire theories on plant varieties as well. Upon completing their apprenticeships, “the kids can take on the jobs immediately, without having to train them from scratch”, she said.

“We have a bunch of scholars in Singapore, but how many can speak of hands-on experiences and how many can take on a job after graduation without ... training?”

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