Thursday 11 September 2014

ASPIRE to break through limiting beliefs

Parliament yesterday endorsed the recommendations of the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) committee to make skills training and applied learning a way of life. We reproduce excerpts of speeches from Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who spoke about the need for three breakthroughs in thinking; and from Senior Minister of State for Education Indranee Rajah's speech on Monday, where she explained what the report means by deepening skills.
The Straits Times, 10 Sep 2014

WE ARE not fixing a broken system. In fact, the polytechnic and ITE education in Singapore is first-rate. It has allowed many Singaporeans to make good progress, it is widely admired around the world.

ASPIRE represents the forward-thinking and planning in our policymaking and it represents the way that we respond to the aspirations of Singaporeans.

Our beliefs can shape our choices. Our beliefs can either limit or expand opportunities. My remarks will address three beliefs about qualifications that limit our potential, how ASPIRE breaks through these limiting beliefs.

Limiting beliefs

THE first limiting belief is that qualifications are all that matter to get a good job, to get a good life. This is limiting because the highest qualifications will do a person no good if there are no jobs available in the first place.

In many parts of Europe, even nearer home Taiwan and other examples, we see highly educated people without a job because the economy does not create jobs for them for structural or cyclical reasons. It is very painful.

The belief that qualifications are all that matter is also limiting because there's a variety of jobs requiring us to learn in different ways and all our life.

Some jobs require degrees; some jobs don't. Some, like a heart surgeon, for instance, requires deep skills that take years of post-graduate specialised training. And there are some jobs, like those of a master craftsman or master chef, that also require deep skills but which can be better acquired on the job.

Qualifications are a proxy measure for some competencies, some attributes but cannot represent the full package of attributes each of us brings to the table.

A second limiting belief is the opposite extreme - that qualifications don't matter at all.

Some members of the public are asking: is the Government now saying that qualifications don't matter? Then why are we urging people to learn and upgrade?

So let me be clear. ASPIRE is not about dissuading Singaporeans from upgrading ourselves, or pursuing degrees or pursuing any form of qualification. ASPIRE is about creating opportunities for all, not creating more competition for some. ASPIRE is about keeping pathways open for all, not blocking pathways for some.

Qualifications matter but they must be the right qualifications and of the right standard for what we want to do.

So, for example, we want our doctor, our nurse, our pharmacist, our physiotherapist to each have the right qualifications for the job they do. We want the engineers who certify our buildings are safe, to be really well-trained, well-qualified to do the job. We want our architect similarly to be well-qualified for the job. The right qualification signifies that you have the right skills, the right combination of knowledge, application and experience.

But not all qualifications matter. Not if they do not help us build the right skills for what we want to do. And this can happen when we seek qualifications as a paper chase, rather than as a quest for skills.

Recently, a young resident came to see me for advice. She shared that after she got her diploma, she went directly to do a private degree programme because she thought that she could get a better job and earn a better pay. But after spending tens of thousands of dollars on the programme, she got a job that paid her at a fresh diploma holder level - about $2,000. Because the company did not find her degree skills relevant.

She lost three years of salary had she gone on to work. So opportunity cost of over $70,000 plus the cost of doing this programme. What's worse, she realised after all this that this line of work does not suit her strengths and interest. She was so caught up in chasing the piece of paper and lost the chance to discover what she really cared about.

This story moved me because her family is not well-off, it's such a huge cost to them.

I feel strongly that we must provide better career and education guidance to our young people. And our captains of industry must come out and explain what they are looking for.

A third limiting belief is that if others are better qualified, I would lose out.

Now, is it true that if poly and ITE students learn better, the value of degrees would go down?

Again, this is very limiting. The opposite is true - when our friends and colleagues can do a better job, we all benefit.

Just think about this. What does it take to make a visitor to Singapore have a great experience?

From the pilot to the cabin crew, to the moment he lands at the airport, the way that our counter staff deal with it, to our taxi driver, to the baggage handler, to the frontline staff at the hotels, in the restaurants, in the places of interest, everyone will have some role to play in making it a great experience.

And not to mention the architects and the engineers who design all these attractions. Not to mention the technicians and the cleaners who maintain these facilities. The more that each of us can do our part, the more that each of us is highly skilled and can do a great job, the more we create the right conditions for everyone to thrive.

This is the Singapore Story. We enjoy a better standard of living because we work as a team, and we earn other's respect and we earn a premium for being team players cheering one another on, for helping one another do better.


THE ASPIRE report encourages us to break through these limiting beliefs, to think anew about qualifications, jobs and opportunities:

Breakthrough No. 1 is to go beyond qualifications to the pursuit of excellence, by recognising that attitude, deep skills, knowledge and experience matter if we want to perform and excel.

The second breakthrough is to go beyond the classroom to recognise the value of applied learning and lifelong learning - and make the workplace a great learning place.

The third breakthrough is to go beyond narrow definitions of success to recognise that everyone excels at different things, in different ways, and that we can all excel if we apply our minds, hands and hearts to what we do.

Does this mean that degrees no longer matter? None of these breakthroughs devalues some qualifications over others. None of these breakthroughs limits opportunities for one group of people over another. It is not about one kind of qualification versus another; one group versus another.

Can we put these breakthrough ideas into practice?

The answer is Yes...

I addressed three limiting beliefs that hold us back from realising our full potential. I talked about three important breakthroughs that ASPIRE makes. And I shared the three areas of action for us to break through our limiting beliefs: We must learn at every stage, learn in every way, respect everyone.

These are not ideals. These are imperatives.

We must not limit ourselves to some places, sometimes, some people over others. We must break through into every stage, every way, everyone. The Government will work hard on "learn at every stage, and learn in every way", together with employers, schools and families.

The most important part of all is respect everyone. Because at the heart of the matter, it is not just about qualifications, not just about jobs, not just about economic growth.

All of this is to create the conditions for Singaporeans to pursue lives of meaning, achievements and joy. Everyone of us, regardless of our starting points.

Car mechanic may need to be robotics expert

WHAT are skills? We must be clear on what we mean when referring to skills. I have heard that since the National Day Rally and the ASPIRE report, some children have been telling their parents that since it is now about skills, they do not have to study anymore.

There is a misapprehension that skills means only doing things with your hands, or some manual form of work. "Skills" means much more than that. So what do we mean by "skills"?

Broadly, skills means knowledge, application and experience. Knowledge necessarily includes academic content and theory. For example, it is not possible to do construction work, which involves measurement and dimensions, without maths. You cannot do product design without learning about materials and understanding manufacturing processes.

Hence, our primary and secondary schools have an academic syllabus to provide a strong foundation for students, whether they later choose an academic route or a more applied route such as polytechnics and ITE.

Knowledge alone is not enough - it is how you apply it. "It's not what you know. It's what you can do with what you know." This is where applied learning comes in. It allows students to learn through practice and application. The workplace is one of the best places for applied learning. Experience is, of course, the fruit of constant practice and application.

When we refer to skills, we are also referring to both hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are technical know-how. It is not limited to skills in technical sectors, such as precision engineering. It includes skills in the service sector, such as hospitality, as well as skills in professions like nursing and accountancy. It covers the entire spectrum of work.

Then there are soft skills, such as attitude, leadership, communication skills, teamwork, the ability to work across cultures, the ability to deal with people and the ability to solve problems.

The third sense in which we use skills is the ability to achieve desired outcomes. Once we understand that skills encompass all these things, it is easy to understand why skills are so important to an individual's personal development and growth as well as to his or her career prospects. It is also easy to understand why skills are so much in demand by industry and employers.

Raising skills levels

THE first thing we mean by progressing through skills is raising skills levels across the board.

Jobs are becoming more complex. For example, in the past if you were a car mechanic doing maintenance and repairs, all you needed was mechanical knowledge.

Today, car functions are increasingly computerised. If something goes wrong, it is not just a matter of a mechanical repair - there is also a need to run computer diagnostics on the car to find out what is wrong.

In the future, we will have driverless cars. The car mechanic will then have to acquire even more skill sets. In fact, he may be replaced by a maintenance robot.

To stay relevant, he will need skills that enable him to direct and control the robot - a higher order of skills. So taking the example of a car mechanic, the skills needed yesterday were mechanics. Today, it is mechanics plus electronics. Tomorrow, it will be mechanics, electronics and robotics. In order to cope with this, we have to raise our skills levels across the board, in every sector, at every level, to bring Singaporeans to a new skills equilibrium.

This is so that as the way we do jobs change, as jobs themselves change, as new ones are created and old ones swept away - Singaporeans will be ready, not only to cope but also to thrive, because those with the raised skills levels will be the ones who will be able to access better pay, better prospects, better progression and better outcomes.

The second way of progressing through skills is building on skills. We want people to be able to progress by building upon a solid preceding layer of skills at each stage.

Let me give an example which I encountered when I visited Keppel shipyard. An employee comes in with a diploma in marine and offshore technology. He works for a few years as an assistant engineer installing and commissioning equipment on a rig.

Later, he goes on to do a degree in naval architecture. He graduates, and becomes a naval architect and can design ships or rigs. Think of how much more someone who has actually worked on building a rig can bring to the design and functionality of a rig when he one day becomes a naval architect.

We want people to progress not only by building on skills but also by widening their scope.

For example, a technician or an engineer on the shopfloor may show leadership or organisational potential. To help them fulfil their potential, we need to broaden their skills. For example, we can send them to a course in project management and human resource management, and so they acquire a different set of skills.

There is a need for deep knowledge and expertise. This is the path of specialisation. For example, in the aerospace industry, a trainee licensed aircraft engineer (LAE) starts by becoming familiar with an aircraft's major systems and powerplants. He deepens his skills to become an assistant LAE and performs transit check procedures, and then becomes a full LAE, performing detailed system, engine component and functional checks and troubleshooting procedures.

In the past, graduation from an educational institution marked the point where education stopped and work began. Now, education and work are intertwined. Learning and education must continue even after one has started work. The continuous learning and acquisition of new skills will enable people to upgrade and progress throughout their working lives and achieve better outcomes for themselves and their families.

ASPIRE committee report
ASPIRE debate in Parliament Day 1
ASPIRE debate in Parliament Day 2

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