Economist Impact, supported by Google, conducted a survey of 1,375 employees across Asia-Pacific (APAC), including 100 employees from Singapore, between November 2022 and January 2023. It also interviewed employers and industry experts across the region to understand their perspectives on skills gaps, as well as reskilling and upskilling aspirations.
The survey respondents were drawn from across 14 markets in the region, out of which 11.8% were Gen Z (born in 1997-2012), 63.2% were Millennials (1981-96) and 25% were Gen X (1965-80). They all worked in a diverse mix of industries.
The research shows that across the region, common understanding is lacking between employers and employees about future skills and the best way to develop them. In some instances, there is also an expectation mismatch between what employers want and what employees see as being important. Understanding these gaps will be instrumental in creating a workforce that is prepared for the economy of the future.
This article—one in a series of 12 market reports—examines these issues in Singapore. This series complements a research paper that looks at the reskilling and upskilling imperative across APAC.
- Digital skills are a priority for 69% of employees in Singapore, more than any of the other surveyed APAC markets.
- Employees in Singapore also prioritise other skills categories such as analytical skills (53%) and soft skills (51%).
- Nearly half (49%) of employees have a poor understanding of what skills are needed in the market.
- 61% of employees in Singapore rely on government awareness programmes for information about which skills will be valuable in the future.
The pandemic disrupted life in Singapore, and the ensuing, ongoing economic uncertainty has created further difficulties in the job market. But through all of this, the potential of digital technologies in reshaping the economy’s future-readiness has shone through. Compared with most of its neighbours, Singapore is already far along its digitalisation journey, with major policies like the “Smart Nation” initiative1 and the national Green Plan 20302 charting roadmaps towards a highly digital, green economy.
These ambitious plans are creating new pressures and opportunities for the city-state’s workforce. And emerging skill sets will be vital to navigating its changing needs.
Advancing digital skills
Digital skills are a priority for 69% of employees in Singapore, the highest out of the 14 surveyed APAC markets. More than 90% of firms in Singapore have already adopted some type of digital technology, and there is strong demand in the city-state for tech talent.3 Our survey shows that advanced digital skills such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things are becoming pivotal. Importantly, these skill sets are increasingly in demand across pretty much every industry imaginable—from healthcare to manufacturing.
Given the shortage of tech talent in Singapore, workers possessing advanced digital skills are also likely to have more bargaining power in the job market.4 Individuals applying these advanced digital skills at work can boost their salaries by more than 120%.5 This is seen in the Economist Impact survey, which shows that one in four employees in Singapore say higher pay and bargaining power best describe their motivation to acquire new digital skills.
One such area of importance is cybersecurity. According to Soon Joo Gog, chief skills officer at SkillsFuture,Singapore, cybersecurity skills are becoming increasingly important to any company engaging with digital services. These skills are considered key to ensuring business continuity, particularly given the spate of major security breaches that have taken place within the past year.6 Among the Economist Impact survey respondents, cybersecurity is considered a “must have” by 24.6% and a “good to have” by 68.1%.
Basic digital skills remain critical too. Given the advanced state of Singapore’s digital transformation, the intensive pace of digital adoption across all economic sectors has made digital skills foundational to many, if not most, careers. The Economist Impact survey shows that basic digital skills are considered a “must have” by the vast majority of respondents (75.4%), in line with the regional average of 73.9%.
Employees in Singapore also place greater importance on other skills categories such as analytical skills (53%) and soft skills (51%). Analytical skills like project management and critical thinking are increasingly becoming foundational skills that enable professional and personal progress, highlight 29% of the employees in our survey. These skills are highly transferable across different roles and are “critical core skills” that facilitate career mobility as well as make it easier to grasp other more technical skills.7 With remote and hybrid setups likely to be a permanent feature for six out of ten companies going forward, soft skills like adaptability, communication and resilience will be increasingly important.8
On the other hand, green skills are considered relatively less valuable by employees at the moment, ranked first by only 12% of employees—compared with 17.7% in APAC. Ms Gog says that while digital skills are pervasive across industries and job roles because of enabling technologies that augment human activities, the momentum of green activities across industries are picking up, eventually all jobs will require green skills, albeit it’s nascent state.
However, as Singapore strengthens its focus on the green economy, and as developments such as COP27 bring sustainability and green issues to the mainstream globally, more companies will focus on the green economy and new roles will emerge in this space, making it important for workers to acquire these skills. In 2020 the Singapore government estimated that the city-state would create 55,000 jobs in the coming decade because of the growing focus on sustainable development. Demand is expected to come from sectors including finance, agriculture, food, urban solutions such as sanitation and waste management, carbon services, and climate science.9
At the moment, however, most green upskilling is driven by employees’ personal interest in the topic (26%), a trend that is expected to change as Singapore prioritises environmental goals and sustainability.
Lack of time is a major barrier to learning new skills
Upskilling and reskilling has a high impact when it comes to improving current employees’ performance, as reported by 38% of workers in Singapore. While employees benefit from upskilling, they face multiple challenges. One of the primary concerns for employees in Singapore is the lack of time to learn new skills (42%). Long working hours and caregiving responsibilities leave little time for learning. Moreover, 49% of respondents say they don’t have a grasp of which skills are in demand in the job market. Due to this lack of clarity, they struggle to decide how best to allocate their already limited time and resources in learning new skills.
Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)—which comprise 99% of all Singaporean companies and 71% of the workforce10—are particularly vulnerable to this problem, due to their limited resources and training capabilities. This results in significant information asymmetry.
Firms in Singapore can engage with resources from the government like the National Centre of Excellence’s Workplace Learning programme, which aims to promote SME reskilling by connecting firms to a pool of mentors and consultancy services.11
While access to resources is a necessary step, it's not sufficient on its own, cautions Ms Gog. Businesses need a fresh approach to make continuous learning a workplace activity and incorporate lifelong learning opportunities into their daily operations.
Some employers are being proactive: respondents report that workplace training and online learning are major sources of skills attainment. Online certificates are also recognised by employers, 56% of survey respondents say.
However, Ms Gog warns that while online learning is a useful mode of learning, it alone is not enough to promote deep learning, especially for technology skills. She talks about the importance of putting into practice what one has learnt from online courses in the workplace, and the role of mentoring, in developing deeper expertise.
Collaboration between employers and government is essential
According to our survey, government awareness programmes (61%) are a main source of skills information for employees in Singapore, ahead of social media and advertisements (45%) and news articles (44%), and substantially higher than the regional average (42.5%).
The Singapore government is driving a number of skilling initiatives through various programmes, subsidies and incentives such as school teacher credits, enterprise credits, and access to online and offline advisory services. More can be done, however, with Ms Gog suggesting that Singapore has been leveraging on “tripartisan approach”—one that engages the efforts of employees, the government and employers to enable a competitive and inclusive economy. Companies may also explore collaborations with universities or polytechnics to develop training opportunities for their employees, she adds.
Employers also have a key role to play in determining how their own skilling needs are met. Our survey reveals that workers in Singapore primarily expect employers to provide information on different skills (64%), support their mental well-being (51%), and provide notable recognition through certification and additional perks (48%). Employers should also look towards training specific skill sets for specific goals—for example, achieving cybersecurity resilience. Employers can focus on developing dedicated cybersecurity talent12 and working with government agencies to explore the requisite upskilling needs.
Moreover, to support employees in managing time, companies could make upskilling a workplace activity, ensuring that learning and working happen in tandem. Employers could also regularly monitor the skills they need and clearly communicate the same to employees. Government through its awareness programmes could continue to keep the workforce updated especially groups and organisations that lack clarity such as SMEs.
Collaboration is, and will continue to be, a crucial ingredient for Singapore’s skilling efforts. Despite the progress that the city-state has made, employers and employees must also be aware that emerging job roles are still being shaped, and that continuous learning will be the fundamental differentiator for change.