Tharman Shanmugaratnam

In sharing his observations, Senior Minister Tharman noted many societies have bounced back better because of collective resilience. 

Senior Minister of Singapore, and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, Tharman Shanmugaratnam (pictured above) has made a case for lifelong learning as a means to build collective resilience, in order to withstand present and future crises as a society.

This was at the inaugural Global Lifelong Learning Summit jointly organised by the Institute for Adult Learning (IAL) and SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), held on 1 and 2 November, and attended by HRO.

Likening the need for lifelong learning to the field of sports, where "if you don't practise all the time and play all the time, you have a much higher risk of getting injured", Senior Minister (SM) Tharman noted that many societies have bounced back better because of collective resilience.

He said: "It requires not just waiting for crises, disruptions, and downturns, but also stepping up our efforts in normal times in peacetime, so to speak. It requires constant upskilling and reskilling, and regular injects of learning throughout life. This will become the norm."

This endeavour, he noted, will not only help in raising productivity as the basis for improved living standards for the workforce. However, to him, it is more than that - "(This is) important for inclusivity, not just for averages."

He added this will also ensure that the different starting points in life for members of the workforce (referring to every individual's collective set of life experiences) do not perpetuate themselves. Thirdly, he noted, this mission, which he called "probably the largest economic and social endeavour for all our societies", is intrinsic to achieving a sense of purpose and dignity for every individual at work. 

SM Tharman, who was also guest-of-honour at the Summit, called attention to fundamental forces that are reshaping the future of work and society, which have, in fact, pre-dated COVID.

The first, he said, was automation which is not simply a continuation of automation that we've seen in the past. "New, more powerful forms of digital automation are very likely to impact a much broader swath of jobs and tasks in every economy. We can't predict with precision exactly which types of jobs are going to be displaced. And indeed, there will be many new jobs and tasks created by the technological advances we've seen," he explained.

The other "slow moving" force he mentioned was the continuing decline in optimism in a range of societies, including in the more mature, or advanced economies, citing several surveys where parents are concerned about the future of their children, economically speaking. 

To round up this analysis, he said: "There has been a downdraft in optimism, and that together with growing insecurities at work, are the fundamental challenges we have to address. We have to not just treat this as a trajectory that's given, but ultimately, to alter the trajectory and recreate the sense of society that the future will be better.

"We must avoid the stagnation of the middle that is plaguing many societies. The stagnation of the broad middle class, both blue collar and white collar (workers), and we must ensure that we preserve and rebuild the spirit of solidarity. Everyone must advance together.

"And if you think of it in those terms, it's clear that the central strategy has to do with investing in human capabilities and resilience."

Concluding his speech, SM Tharman highlighted three key observations (on lifelong learning) that are particularly pertinent for the HR and employment ecosystem to think about.

First, he noted, is the need to address the needs of blue-collar workers and ordinary white-collar workers, who are the ones most at risk with the upcoming, powerful era of automation. "We’re already seeing the risk of blue-collar workers and ordinary white-collar workers stagnating in their pay earlier in life, compared to professional workers, is very high. We have to find ways in which we provide conveniently and in a relevant way, equal opportunities to quality work for every segment of the workforce," he urged.

Second is the challenge of middle-aged mid-career workers, who are clearly different from how we go about treating the young for practical reasons (in terms of learning). These, he explained, are people who don't have a huge amount of time on their hands, and do have many other obligations, family and otherwise. But importantly, they’ve been away from school for a long time.

The art and science of treating adult learners is quite different, he shared, since it comes loaded with experiences of life, making the learning experience different for each person. Therefore, not just does the adult mind learn quite differently from the child, but adult learners also want to have a role in deciding what is it that's important to them in their careers, and how they will learn. 

Third, the Senior Minister noted that the concept and execution of lifelong education in the whole SME sector, which accounts for the bulk of employment in every society globally, is still below the mark. "SMEs don't have the scale to develop their own training programmes. Often, they don't have the range of job options to allow for career advancement within the firm. And they're very often understandably preoccupied with ‘today’. Surviving, making sure they've still got their cash flow coming."

Therefore, he urged employment decision-makers to think about ways to aggregate skills and deliver programmes that can help SMEs.


Photo / Provided by GLLS 

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