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How Singapore is retraining workers for a more automated workplace

Commuters line the escalators at lunch hour at Raffles Place in Singapore
Commuters at Raffles Place in Singapore. Photo: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

Automation and AI has left some American workers worried they lack the skill sets to compete in a changing economy. Singapore's SkillsFuture program offers one national re-education model that aims to address such concerns.

The big picture: Since the launch of the program in 2016, over 285,000 people — more than 10% of adult residents — have participated, and 43% of Singaporean CIOs say the program has helped mitigate the economic effects of the skills gap.

How it works: Through SkillsFuture, Singapore's government reimburses citizens up to SG$500 per year for approved retraining courses.

  • Automation is reducing jobs across manufacturing, financial services, pharmaceuticals, construction, agriculture and administration.
  • In response, Singapore's program supports re-education in areas such as web development and design, entrepreneurship, the digital workforce, and SEO.
  • The Singaporean government partnered with universities and online educational platforms to provide a wide range of approved technology-related classes. Citizens use their SG$500 allowance to sign up for classes that will accelerate their careers.

Between the lines: To address a growing domestic skills gap and maintain a globally competitive workforce, the U.S. could invest in its own re-education and skills training programs. These solutions can come from three sources: trade organizations, government and industry.

  • Trade apprenticeship programs are helping to close the gap in Germany, for example. Business leaders in the U.S. could also offer education resources for their workforces.
  • The U.S. government could partner with community colleges and online education platforms to make courses on sought-after skills, like programming languages.
    • Yes, but: To help Americans who already feel impacted by the skills gap, these programs would need to be accessible and affordable, and may require limits on the role of for-profit colleges, which can leave workers with unsustainable debt loads.

The bottom line: According to a Deloitte study, skills now expire every five years, at which point workers must learn new skills to meet existing responsibilities. U.S. unemployment is low, which suggests that a skills gap hasn't largely hurt the workforce — but if it does, it would take time to build out robust education programs.

Richard Qiu is a senior vice president at Udemy an online learning platform, where he manages Udemy's education partnership with the Singaporean government.