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Opinion: The future of work, part V

Sporadically, over the past six months, I’ve written about several issues that confront us as our world of work slouches into the future. In “The Future of Work” (Aug. 7, 2021), I addressed the issue of working from home and the perceived need for flexible work hours that has been necessitated by a global pandemic.

“The Future of Work, Part II” (Aug. 28, 2021) focused on the use of robotics in the food industry. I tried to imagine the redesign of our homes to accommodate the current necessity and future desire to work from home in ‘’The Future of Work, Part III” (Sept. 11, 2021). And in “The Future of Work, Part IV,” I addressed experimental work programs, including the idea of a guaranteed income (Oct. 16, 2021).

Singapore story

Singapore is a sovereign island city-state off the southern tip of the Malay peninsula. Consisting of only 283 square miles, its population of nearly 5.7 million makes it the third most densely populated place in the world. It was occupied by Japan during World War II and returned to British control as a crown colony after the war ended. It became a self-governing entity in 1959 and began its development into one of the Four Tigers of international trade, along with Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan.

As a result of its astounding economic success, it has the world’s highest percentage of millionaires. Property on the land-scarce island is among the most expensive in the world, and one out of every six households has at least one million US dollars in disposable wealth. It has one of the longest life expectancies (81 for men, 86 for women) and lowest infant mortality rates (1.8 per 1000 births) in the world. Yet, Singapore faces problems. But they are problems that are shared by most other highly developed countries, including the United States.

With a birth rate that is slightly lower than the United States (9 per 1,000 population versus 11 per thousand) and death rate that is half that of the U.S. (5 per thousand population versus 10 per thousand), Singapore faces a future that is aging faster than the U.S. and some other highly developed economies. And, like the U.S., Singapore will have a smaller workforce to support a growing population over the age of 65.

Second skills

With a highly educated population and a sophisticated economy, Singapore’s schools direct students (all of whom are taught in English) toward post-secondary education. The island nation-state has six public universities, two of which (National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University) are among the top 20 universities in the world. From the earliest years of schooling, students are educated for life-long learning.

For many decades, I have lectured and written that college doesn’t actually prepare students for jobs; it gives students the skills necessary to learn their current jobs and to prepare for future jobs. The latter is the goal of Singapore’s Second-Skills program. According to Barbara Oakley of Oakland University, Second Skills is aimed at “developing your skills for a new job while you’re still working.”

Singapore doesn’t have a problem filling existing jobs. It has a long history of low unemployment rates: below 4 percent from 2005 to 2014, 3.2 percent in 2015, and about 2 percent in 2020. Still, the government is investing in its citizens in order to keep them employed and flexible in regard to the jobs that they hold.

Flexibility is the key because Singapore recognizes that an aging workforce has a serious complication, specifically the real possibility of current workforce skills becoming obsolete before working years are over.

Job obsolescence

Traditionally, careers have been viewed as a staircase. One lands on a step, works at that job for a while, and then moves up to the next step. Patrick Tay, a member of Singapore’s Parliament, thinks that we should view that staircase as an escalator. The steps are not static, but always moving upward. He says, “We need to design our jobs, and we need to ‘upskill’ people to take on these new jobs.”

This is why Singapore offers the Second-Skill program. Tay realizes that “second-skilling — developing your skill in a sector other than the one you work in — is necessary for career resiliency; it gives you options and flexibility.” He goes on to say, “Everyone has to play a role in this — the worker, the employer, the government, and, in the greater scheme of things, society itself.”

In the United States, many employers hold the same value. However, with few exceptions, the cost of continuing education is the responsibility of the worker. Some or all of the expenses may be tax deductible, depending on the kind of one’s employment and the type of education. But, in Singapore, every citizen and permanent resident gets $500S (about $350 USD) for skills training of his or her choice. The money can be used for training in anything a person wants to learn, not just what the employer may need.

Work and passion

When looking at the road to continued education, we should consider what we love to do and consider how that might be part of a wider work picture. Success is far more likely when we are able to couple our passion with our occupation.

We’ve all encountered a worker who fails to provide a required service or who does not take that extra step to complete a job adequately. That is a failure to couple passion to employment. On the other hand, the librarian who spends 20 minutes searching for the exact reference that is needed or the IT tech who refuses to give up on a glitch in a program or machine until the problem is solved are examples of people who love what they do, do it well, and are definitely on the escalator rather than the staircase.

These people would prosper from a Second-Skill program, and — in turn — employers and society, in general, benefit.

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Thanks to Paul Aguayo for his suggestion that prompted today’s column. Jim Glynn may be contacted at

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