Thursday 16 October 2014

Aspire to expand the economic pie

By Devadas Krishnadas, Published The Straits Times, 15 Oct 2014

IN AUGUST, the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) committee released its recommendations to ensure that future polytechnic and ITE graduates have more marketable skills, better career choices and superior professional paths.

Among its recommendations: Enhance internships for students at polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), and have place-and-train programmes where students study and work at the same time.

While laudable, the ASPIRE committee's recommendations face the challenge of implementation.

On internships, will there be enough placement opportunities of sufficient quality to match the number of students and graduates in their skill fields?

On the place-and-train programme, will the Government have to audit industry to ensure that it can fulfil its role and maintain training standards?

A further challenge is sustainability. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may not be able to spare the additional manpower required to mentor workers under the place-and-train scheme.

They also may not be able to afford the opportunity costs of sending their workers for Continuing Education Training (CET) programmes.

Future macro-level shocks to the economy such as a regional or global recession would further increase the constraints placed on employers to support such programmes.

How would the Government ensure the continuity of internship and on-the-job development under contracting market conditions? In economic extremis, would it pay or subsidise wages of ASPIRE participants and finance the costs of their CET?

Despite its operational challenges, the ASPIRE plan is part of a very worthwhile effort to broaden emphasis on upgrading the workforce. In recent years, the accountancy, medical and legal professions have been the subject of legislative or professional adjustments to lift and maintain standards.

But raising standards in the professions, or indeed turning more service areas into professions, is not necessarily going to help the economy.

Instead, the future of Singapore requires us to expand and grow the economic pie. To support that expansion, we need to improve in three critical areas.

Qualities with qualifications

FIRST, what makes a good worker is not qualifications alone.

Employers focus as much on the qualities of the worker as they do on certificates.

To support the growth of our SMEs, we need managers and workers to possess the right bundle of qualities - ambition, drive, professionalism, resilience and discipline - to go along with higher skill levels.

While there is a lot that the ASPIRE plan may do for qualifications, there is little the Government can do about qualities.

That is up to the workers and the workplace culture in SMEs. Employers need to step up their game and have higher expectations for the future of their businesses.

Job makers, not just job takers

SECOND, we need to have more job makers and not just more job takers. In other words, we need more entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship is an expression of optimism in the future.

It is contingent on their numbers and energy that we will be able to build a strong base of indigenous commerce and knowledge to complement our dependency on multinational corporations.

The ASPIRE plan may contribute to a higher-skilled technical workforce, but what's needed is to go beyond creating a technically skilled workforce to creating a larger and more successful pool of technical SMEs.

For that, we need to depend on a self-selecting cadre of risk-takers with vision and drive. We need to highlight more success stories of technical SMEs doing well. We also need to be careful not to have the ASPIRE plan inadvertently exclude in the minds of students the prospect of entrepreneurship as an option by defining success as an exclusive focus on being just better workers.

A Singapore, not Singaporean, economy

THIRD, we can further grow the economy by attracting successful SMEs in other regional economies to relocate to Singapore.

This would be an effective supplement to growing our own SMEs to scale. We can depend on our comparative advantages in the legal, financial, infrastructure and educational dimensions as strong attractors.

We should avoid thinking in terms of a "nationalist" economy where only Singaporean-owned businesses or large multinationals can benefit from public grants, subsidies and tax incentives.

Instead, we should think of the national economy and welcome growth-orientated SMEs from elsewhere to re-root here and thereby create jobs and inject ideas and energy into our economy. The ASPIRE plan is ambitious in rhetoric but limited in reality and leaves unanswered major operational challenges and risks. Even if these are resolved, it is but one step towards a bigger and better economy. In the end, the ASPIRE plan can be only part of a broader approach to inspiring the growth of our future economy and in the right direction. To do this, we also need mindset adjustments in the workforce and in economic policy-making.

Perhaps most important of these adjustments is the need to recognise that significant changes cannot be exclusively reliant on government interventions. These are, at best, only enablers.

Students, workers and employers must accept the challenge of change and we all have to be less rigid in our thinking of the economic space. Only by expanding the economic pie and deepening the innovation and productivity base can we realistically expect to build a desirable "Brand Singapore" while lifting wages. Importantly, succeeding will mean higher, not lower, prices for final goods and services. This is something which we must accept as a trade-off for more pride in our workforce and sense of equity in the wage share of earnings.

The writer is chief executive of Future-Moves Group, an international strategic consultancy and executive education provider based in Singapore.

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