TL;DR – Taobao, Zalora, Amazon, anyone?
Hands up if you have bought things online before. Whether it’s from Taobao, Lazada, Zalora, Amazon, or some random blogshop.
Come on. You must have.
Then you are one of the people responsible for the empty storefronts in Orchard Road. You are the reason why people working in retail lose their jobs. That was one of the messages Chan Chun Sing, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Secretary-General of NTUC, shared recently at the ST Jobs Fair.
Minister Chan used this example to highlight how technology is destroying jobs. However, he pointed out that technology also created jobs. While e-commerce destroys traditional jobs in retail, it also creates jobs in areas such as supply chain management, financial technology, software development, and cyber-security.
So what’s the net impact that technology has on the number of jobs in Singapore?
The great matchmaking problem
Well, consider this. Currently, even with advances in technology, there are still about 3.5 million jobs available in Singapore. There are only about 2.3 million Singaporeans of working age. So even as technology advances and destroys some jobs, there should still more than enough jobs for Singaporeans.
Then why is it that we have been hearing that some Singaporeans are having a tough time finding jobs?
Well, the problem lies in matching.
Often, the jobs created by technology aren’t in the same sectors as the jobs that technology destroys. Take the example of e-commerce. It won’t be easy for the people who used to work in the retail stores in Orchard road who now find themselves unemployed to get any of the jobs created by e-commerce. Most of them probably won’t have the right skill set to move into jobs created by e-commerce.
And that’s why even though there are Singaporeans who find it difficult to get jobs, there are companies who find it difficult to get the right employees. The many booths at the ST Jobs fair was evidence of that.
As Minister Chan reminded the audience:
“We didn’t give them free breakfast and lunch to set up booths here. In fact, they paid money so that they can set up booths!”
The economic situation in Singapore today is different from that in the past. Economic growth is certainly slower. Singapore expects to be growing at 2-3% annually. But more important than the fact that growth is slowing, we need to realise that the economy has become more diverse.
In the past, almost all sectors of the economy moved in tandem. When economy goes up, everything goes up. When it goes down, everything goes down. But that’s not the case today. Today, there is a wider spread. Today, the different sectors of the economy grow at “2-3% ± 5%”. This means that some sectors are actually contracting by 2% (e.g. oil and gas), while some sectors are growing at blistering pace of 8%.
When asked if Singapore’s economy was doing well, he answered:
“It depends on which part of the economy you are looking at.”
We shouldn’t be too fixated on the average growth of the economy. Instead, we should look at specifics part of the value chain of specific sectors and see how we can position ourselves to seize the opportunities that they present. If we can do that, then, no matter whether the market is going up or down, we will be able to make a living.
But how can we do that?
We need a culture of continual learning
Given the changes in the structure of the economy and nature of work, the best way to stay ahead of the curve is to continually learn and pick up skills. That’s why the government decided to give each Singaporean $500 in SkillsFuture Credit. But… $500 only… what can that achieve?
Minister Chan explained that a lot of the courses in Singapore are already subsidised by the government at the backend by what he called supply-side subsidies. The SkillsFuture credits is meant to be an additional boost to cultivate a culture amongst Singaporeans of wanting to keep on learning.
In other words, the whole SkillsFuture initiative (yes, it’s a national movement and not just about the $500 credit) will only be successful if Singaporeans take charge of our own learning outcomes. The government cannot dictate what, when and how each and every Singapore should learn. Minister Chan reminded the audience that we need to decide for ourselves which courses or skills are right for us and would best help us progress in our careers.
Having said that, Minister Chan did have some specific advice for the audience.
He advised that it’s usually good to have some specialist skills and develop some generalist skills as a “wraparound”. Then, pick up some “adjacent skills” too.
For example, if you are an accountant, don’t just be an expert in basic book-keeping or audit. Learn about “adjacent skills” of business administration, finance, and corporate law. This will allow you to add more value.
Helping tomorrow’s unemployed into tomorrow’s jobs
Minister Chan concluded the dialogue by pointing out that NTUC’s most important job is to help tomorrow’s unemployed into tomorrow’s jobs. This means helping Singaporeans understand our own vulnerabilities and the opportunities that would be available in the future so that we can start taking steps today to play up our strengths, mitigate our vulnerabilities in order that we can seize tomorrow’s opportunities.