Re-skilling the workforce

Few workers in Singapore lack basic computer knowledge, but more can be done to ensure the workforce continues to pick up new skills.

Over the past few years, the Singapore government has been urging workers, homemakers and senior citizens to take up basic computer courses. Local authorities have also been encouraging business and IT professionals to continue to retrain so as to enhance their employability in the fast-changing business environment.

Alex Siow, chairman of the National Infocomm Competency Centre (NICC) in Singapore, told ZDNet Asia that that the digital divide is narrowing. Few workers in Singapore today lack basic computer knowledge, he said.

But more can be done and all workers--in tech and non-tech professions--should continue to pick up new skills, especially in areas that are directly related to their work.

Siow revealed that that the NICC is discussing with the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises to introduce a range of courses targeting different groups of workers.

The proposed lineup includes workshops on "technology appreciation" and "IT and business value" for decision-makers and senior business executives like CEOs and CFOs. NICC is also proposing database management and systems development courses for IT professionals, as well as office productivity courses targeted at the general workforce.

"We're hoping to roll these out this year," he said.

"If you have no computer knowledge, it'll be hard to find a job because there are very few companies today that don't use computers."

Siow believes that there is now less resistance among workers in SMBs to get retrained in IT, and as SMBs invest more in technology to run their businesses, the pool of knowledge workers will increase in Singapore. In this wide-ranging interview, Siow highlighted the challenges of SMBs in recruiting and hiring IT expertise, as well as the importance of taking a more strategic view of IT.

Q. What's the difference between IT literacy, IT competency and IT savviness?
A. IT literacy means having the basic computer knowledge, to be able to use a computer. But IT competency is another story. It refers to someone who is competent in the tool that they're supposed to use on the job. But if you talk about IT savviness, that refers to the ability to use IT as more than just a working tool, to use it to gain a competitive advantage, and I'd say they are not in the majority yet.

To what extent would you agree that companies, in general, do not focus on the IT competency of new hires?
My observation is that companies don't look at the IT competence of the new employee. Most employers today will require employees to have some knowledge of the computer. If you have no computer knowledge, it'll be hard to find a job because there are very few companies today that do not use computers.

But in general, I don't think employers pay attention to this aspect during the interview process. Employers focus more on the knowledge that the candidate has for a particular job. For example, if it's a sales position, employers focus on the candidate's sales experience. But of course, if you're applying for an IT position, say, a job in IT security, you have to show your competence in security technologies. So it depends on the position that the employers are hiring for.

How much budget do employers dedicate to IT training?
The average training budget allocated is not more than 5 percent of payroll, with some companies spending as much as 10 percent. But I don't think any company spends more than that. In terms of specific IT training, I'd say a very small percentage of the training budget--maybe about 10 percent-- is allocated for IT literacy courses. The majority of the budget is spent on specific skills training relevant to their job.

Do you think companies should be spending more?
I don't think these numbers will, or need to, increase, because those coming out of school today are IT literate, so I don't think the company needs to train them. But if a company has specific software, they'll need to send their new employees for software training.

What about the more mature workers?
During the last recession, most mature workers have gone for training. The Singapore government has been promoting computer training, getting people to upgrade themselves. A lot of IT courses have been offered at community centers, too. Those who have found themselves structurally unemployed have gone for IT skills training. So today, it is rare to find someone who doesn't have basic computer skills. Even carpark wardens today have to use computers.

"Today, it is rare to find someone who doesn't have basic computer skills. Even carpark wardens today have to use computers."

There are still a large percentage of workers in SMBs who are still not exposed to IT. What kind of incentives can employers give their staff to get them to embrace IT?
I don't think there is resistance. Most SMBs today should have some exposure to IT. Most have some accounting systems, order processing systems, no matter how small the company. I also don't think it's that difficult to take up IT. In my past experience as the CIO of HDB, when we first introduced computers to the carpark wardens, they picked it up very fast. No one said he or she didn't want to learn. So I think it's very easy to train people on IT.

How do you think SMBs view IT?
SMBs in general use whatever is popular. To them, IT expenditure is a cost, an overhead. Because they feel IT is an overhead, they will try to mitigate the costs. And they are less keen to try out the latest and the sexist technologies.

So if you're talking about the level of sophistication of IT adoption in SMBs, few use IT strategically. Perhaps some of the more progressive companies do. There's a company called HTL, a furniture company that set up a manufacturing plant in China. They use IT to link the Singapore and China offices; they have invested in a VPN and have dedicated IP access. This SMB believes in using IT strategically. However, the majority of SMBs today continue to invest in the bare minimum, and they rely on the vendor for advice. They're more interested in getting business rather than innovate using IT.

Most SMBs do not have a dedicated IT manager or department. Any suggestions for SMB chiefs on managing IT without an IT department?
It's difficult for an SMB to have an IT department. Most likely, they'll get staff to double up. So most SMBs will out-task IT to a third party.

What about SMBs that do have an IT adminstirator. What kind of career path can an SMB offer in order to keep this staff?
As an SMB, it's difficult to attract someone to join you because there's no career path. If it's just a one-person IT department, you can't get promoted. So the turnover is high. They work for two years, and they move on. You end up hiring for the same position every few years. IT graduates will not want to work in an SMB for too long. They want to work with complex systems and get experience working in larger companies. It's difficult for SMBs.

What kind of courses do you recommend that senior management should go for?
Heads of SMBs have no time to go for IT courses, and there are few courses tailored for them. In terms of the type of courses that would be useful for them to attend, I'd say those that help them understand the business value of IT. Top executives like CEOs and CFOs need to be educated that IT is more than just a tool; IT can enable them to manage their customers and profits better. Some of these courses are conducted by the National University of Singapore and Singapore Management University. But I wouldn't recommend them to attend specific IT courses. I don't think such courses are necessary.