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An Expanded Continuing Education & Training (CET) sector will be critical to ASPIRE's success

I applaud our government for endorsing the recommendations of the ASPIRE committee to make lifelong learning a way of life in Singapore. These breakthrough recommendations could overcome our manpower challenges while optimizing the potential of everyone.

ASPIRE's recommendations are forward-looking and timely as the world has started to recognize that the current education model needs to be realigned and expanded to keep pace with today's VUCA environment – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

In the past, graduating from an educational institution marked the point where education stopped and work began. Now, education and work are intertwined. The education system needs to expand on this narrow definition of success by recognizing that every individual is unique and excels at different things and in different ways.

Employers used to take generalists and train them into specialists for their job role or industry. However, fewer employers want to do that or can afford to do so in a globally competitive economy, especially when they are too small to conduct such training given their limited scale and resources. Today, most employers want fresh graduates out of universities or technical institutes, who are ready to "plug-and-play" and become productive at work as soon as possible.

To meet these needs, education institutions have to deliver not just theoretical knowledge but practical, industry relevant skills for "plug-and-play" readiness in the work place. Few education institutions globally, including those from advanced economies, are ready to adopt an applied learning, practice-oriented model as its implementation will require a support ecosystem that includes diverse stakeholders: individuals, parents, employers, government, and many others.

Gallup has compiled survey data over the past year from pools of close to a million Americans including college graduates, parents, teachers, principals and employers to understand the linkages between education and long term success in the work place (from an article by Thomas Friedman in Straits Times Sept. 11, 2014). "The results were alarming not only because too few students are getting exposed to most important drivers of work place engagement but there is also a huge disconnect in perceptions of the problem on the part of the education institutions. 96% of the college provosts Gallup surveyed believed that their schools were successfully preparing young people for the work place. On the contrary, only 14 % of recent graduates and 11% of employers respectively felt that the college graduates are ready for the work place. This is not just a skills gap. It is an understanding gap" concluded Mr. Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup's education division.

Since our Prime Minister unveiled ASPIRE at this year's national rally, ASPIRE has received strong support and endorsement from both private and public sectors with some spoken out passionately, drawn from personal experiences, as it is a topic that is close to the hearts of everyone. However, many have also expressed concerns on the significant challenges our government will face to bring onboard support for the initiative from various diverse stakeholders including individuals, parents, employers, industry associations, education institutions, unions and regulatory agencies. For these stakeholders, a major challenge would be to change entrenched mindsets for some and to develop new capabilities for others to support the new initiatives.

Recognizing the need for a lot of effort and coordination, DPM Tharman was appointed to spearhead a new inter-ministerial committee that can direct the concerted efforts on a national scale. In her closing speech at the Parliamentary Debate on ASPIRE on 9 September 2014, Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Education and Law, also emphasized that our government will leverage on the strength of our tripartite relationship of cooperation and collaboration between employers, employees and the government to support the initiative.

Minister Indranee also emphasized that ASPIRE is part of a bigger, holistic and strategic move by the government to align education with the industry. Applied learning has been introduced at the primary and secondary stage to complement already strong academic foundations. Individuals can also pursue applied degree pathways offered by the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and SIM University (UniSIM). Even academic universities will have applied learning elements as they proceed to strengthen their internship programmes. Applied learning will be further deepened in the polytechnics and ITE. There will be a whole spectrum of applied education components providing multiple pathways for individuals to acquire industry relevant skills before they join the workforce.

With Applied Learning playing centre stage in our education system, our Continuing Education and Training (CET) sector will need to be expanded as it can assume a critical role in bridging the gap between the diverse stakeholders and establish the support ecosystem required. CET providers can provide training to bridge competency gaps and also facilitate job placements to meet the career aspirations of different individuals. They can serve as the industry's bridge and linkages for our IHLs to deliver applied learning in a coordinated fashion. CET providers can also serve as distribution channels for the various support programs that our government puts in place for individuals and employers.

The CET sector can play a major role in bringing on board key segments of learners and employers necessary for ASPIRE's recommendations to succeed. Currently, a significant majority of polytechnics students prefer to pursue full time academic degrees first before joining the workforce. Furthermore, our SME employers, which hires 70% of our workforce, are not yet ready to adopt ASPIRE's recommendations given their lack of scale to efficiently deliver the required training for their employees.

For polytechnic and ITE graduates, CET providers can deliver the best of both worlds by allowing them to join the workforce earlier without the need to forego their aspirations for a degree. CET providers can also engage these learners via "Place & Train" programmes so that they can acquire practical work experience while receiving competency-based training that lead to industry recognized qualifications. CET providers can also establish accreditation pathways for acquired qualifications; enabling learners to receive transfer credits towards additional qualifications, including internationally recognized degrees and industry certifications as they progress in their careers.

For SME employers, who have minimum scale and capabilities to invest in human capital development, CET providers can be their outsource talent and training partners to develop and implement competency frameworks, to facilitate talent sourcing, and to deliver industry-relevant training. CET providers can also adopt innovative learning technologies and pedagogy that facilitate learning anytime and anywhere. This will help overcome SME employers' inability to send their employees for training given their limited resource pool.

Our CET sector is still young as it was only formally launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2008. The aim was to prepare Singapore's workforce for the future through the acquisition of industry-relevant skills via lifelong learning. SkillsFuture Singapore Agency (SSG) has since collaborated with employers from various industries to establish the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ), a national credentialing system that trains, develops, assesses and recognises individuals for the key competencies that companies look for in potential employees. To date, there are 33 WSQ frameworks representing specific industries. Each framework includes an industry competency map, competency standards and curricula to guide training program design and skills recognition.

Recognizing the increasing demand for applied learning and lifelong learning within the context of an expanded CET framework, DPM Tharman announced a new CET Master Plan to further develop the depth and breadth of our CET sector: The depth to support the diverse roles the CET sector will play and the breadth to support the increasing demand for applied learning before and after learners join the workforce. The WSQ will be expanded across sectors to underpin the development of skills progression pathways, for both fresh graduates and adult workers. Manpower and training support for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) will also be enhanced. To help individuals, there will be an online national education, training and career guidance portal. And to enhance the quality of CET courses, ITE, polytechnics and private educational providers will play a bigger role in offering CET courses. There will also be more structured workplace-based learning through Place-and-Train programmes, and more online learning resources to make learning flexible and mobile.

Lifelong learning and continuing education and training (CET) are essential for individuals to stay relevant, to be productive, and to advance their careers in the industry regardless of their education path. The ASPIRE committee's recommendations provided several guideposts by which these can be achieved through the implementation of applied learning programmes. However, successful applied learning programmes will require the close coordination and cooperation among many key stakeholders. The CET sector, with its close ties to the various industries, can assume a critical role in bridging the gap among the key stakeholders and the industry for both skills development and talent recruitment. The new CET master plan will help transform our CET sector so it can provide the necessary support infrastructure by which applied learning and lifelong learning can flourish.

- Mr. Leslie Loh, Lithan, a SSG recognized CET Centre

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