Training is the remedy to Singapore’s failing iN2015 job targets

The Singapore government’s technology roadmap is doing good work overall but looks likely to fall well short of the target of 80,000 new infocomm jobs. What is the Lion City doing to address this?
Written by Paul Mah, Contributor

Singapore's Intelligent Nation 2015 (iN2015) has the objective of making the city-state the world leader in using infocomm technologies for economic and social benefit.

The 10-year plan laid out some challenging targets including: "a 2-fold increase in the value-add of the infocomm industry to S$26 billion [US$17 billion]", and "a 3-fold increase in infocomm export revenue to S$60 billion [US$39 billion]".   

Interim results show the plan is producing many beneficial outcomes.  Overall infocomm revenue rose from S$38bn in 2005 to S$103bn in 2012, and export revenues almost quadrupled from S$22bn to S$78bn in the same period. 

Some other targets, such as achieving 90% home broadband usage, were well on track just two years into the plan, with the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) reporting household broadband penetration rates had already hit 83.9 percent in 2008.

Overall, there's a positive vibe about iN2015, and deservedly so since this is one of the few coordinated approaches of any government to derive real value from Infocomm.  A quick glance at Singapore's standings in some respected competitiveness benchmarks bears this out.

World economy benchmarks: Source: IDA: http://www.ida.gov.sg/Infocomm-Landscape/Facts-and-Figures/Singapores-Ranking-in-Infocomm

However, the ambitious target to create 80,000 jobs appears to be receding in the rear-view mirror. After seven years of the iN2015 program (2012 data is the latest available), it appears the initiative is well behind on this measure.

The Infocomm employment figures

According to information published by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), infocomm employment stood at 111,400 in 2005, just before the vision was unveiled in 2006, with the latest available figures in 2012 pegging the number at 144,300, or an increase of 32,900.

The growth was strongest in the first three years from — 2006 to 2008 — with annual increases of 7.5 percent, 8.9 percent, and 6.6 percent. Growth has tapered off in the last few years, though, averaging around 1 percent in 2011 and 2012. With a shortfall of 47,100 jobs and just three years of the iN2015 program to run, it seems highly unlikely the target will be met.

Yet employment numbers alone may not be the best measure of the quality of the workforce and corresponding economic value. What if the 144,300 jobs in 2012 are mostly or all at a much higher knowledge level, and value, than the 111,400 in 2005? It's not possible to make this direct comparison based on available figures from IDA's Annual Survey of Infocomm Manpower because the categorization of jobs changed from 2005 to 2012.  However, it is interesting that in 2005, the three most numerous jobs were technical support, programming & software design, and infocomm sales & marketing.  In 2012, the most common jobs were IT operations roles, software/applications developer (excluding games), and CIO/CTO/CISO.

Another big impact on the initial jobs target is the way the infocomm industry changed since 2005. New technologies such as cloud computing, big data, mobile and consumerization of IT require specialized training to up-skill tech workers and help Singapore businesses take full advantage of the benefits of these new capabilities. Technologies like cloud could even have depressed the numbers of new jobs in situations where local businesses have used overseas cloud service providers.

Staying relevant in a fast moving field

The IDA's response has been to roll out a steady stream of schemes to help infocomm workers maintain or upgrade their job relevancy in a constantly changing field. In an email response, the IDA highlighted the Company-Led Training (CLT) programme introduced in 2011 as one such example. The programme seeks to equip new entrants with industry-specific skills through working with companies such as IBM, DBS Bank and Dimension Data, and has trained more than 150 young professionals to date.

To upgrade the skills of current infocomm professionals, IDA also launched various Centres of Attachment (COAs) with leading technology providers to equip IT professionals with in-depth skills in emerging areas through industry projects and industry attachments. These centres offer expert-level training opportunities for job roles such as data scientists and cloud architects, says the IDA.

Previous training initiatives reported by ZDNet include the Critical Infocomm Technology Resource Program (CITREP) and the Hybrid Skills Development Program. The former entails subsidizing training over four years for 16,000 trainees to undertake courses to deepen the capabilities of infocomm and non-infocomm professionals, while the latter is concerned with the development of specialized courses that saw some 2,000 professionals trained over a period of four years.

Making a difference with training

ZDNet contacted a number of IT companies in Singapore to get a better gauge of the on-the-ground benefits generated by the many training programme and industry tie-ups.

"It is very common for multi-national corporations to face difficulty in hiring local talents," says Stephen McNulty, the managing director of the Asia Pacific and Japan region for Progress Software. "We've been lucky enough to not face this challenge and in the past year, we've managed to hire both Singaporeans and [expatriate permanent residents] (PRs) to fill key roles in our Singapore office." McNulty also told ZDNet the company has 100 percent local representation in its Singapore office.

While the emphasis on training appears to have produced sufficient workers for some businesses, others are apparently still having problems hiring the right people. Wong Onn Chee, the managing director of Singapore-based Infotect Security admits he faced challenges in hiring "good IT folks" locally.

"Perhaps more are starting their own startups, which is a good thing too," he quipped.

A practicing security professional with a string of certifications (CISSP, CISA, CISM) under his belt, Wong certainly has a vested interest in hiring local infocomm professionals. For one, it's a requirement for some government projects that his firm takes on

Clement Goh, the managing director for South Asia at datacenter operator Equinix also expressed his difficulty in hiring workers with the right skillset for datacenter operations. In this case, the problem could probably be tied to the diverse training that its employees are expected to have, which is rooted in both mechanical engineering and IT fields.

"When it comes to data center operators, we are a facility operator, so in a sense, yes we will need the generic field set of mechanical engineer for managing the infrastructure perspective, some sort of facility management field," says Goh. "[The] datacenter is actually a cross between people who understand the difference between the IT needs, and the IT field."

For now, Goh has taken matters into his own hands to resolve his manpower issue, hiring IT employees and training them in-house on the electrical and mechanical functions — and vice versa. Given the 24-by-7 operational requirements of datacenters, another barrier that Goh faces is finding workers willing to do shift work. Workers can expect to be compensated handsomely though; the overtime pay component means that such an employee can expect a 20 to 25 percent higher pay over similar roles on a 9-to-5 role.

Ultimately, the ever-changing needs of the infocomm industry only serve to illustrate how training is not an optional activity. Government is only one factor in building an appropriately skilled infocomm workforce.  And while the IDA has continued to roll out relevant training programmes for existing infocomm workers and new entrants into the profession, the onus is also on workers to invest in keeping their skillsets relevant.

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