Education & Family

Singapore leads the way for workplace skills

Work Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption What kind of skills will people need for a changing workplace?

When the OECD completed its first survey of adult skills three years ago, it showed how much poor skills severely limit people's access to better-paying and more-rewarding jobs.

This survey, initially carried out in more than 20 countries, compared workplace skills such as literacy, numeracy and problem solving.

It also showed such skills in the workforce have significant implications for how economic growth is shared.

Put simply, where many adults have poor skills, it seems difficult to introduce new ways of working and new technology, which stalls improvements in living standards.

The consequences are wider than earnings and employment. Adults with lower skills are more likely to report poor health, feel that they lack control over political decisions, and have less trust in others.

This survey has now been widened with nine more countries and regions - and their results change our picture of the global talent pool.

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Image caption A new aerospace training centre in Singapore: The country has improved the skills of its workforce

It shows how much progress can be achieved in a couple of generations.

In Singapore, one of the new countries in the survey, just 2.4% of those nearing retirement can manage complex texts and just 3.4% can handle tasks involving advanced numeracy skills.

But among young adults, Singapore has the largest share of young adults who are top performers in numeracy.

Contrast that with England, where young adults have no better skills than adults who are nearing retirement.

The generation gap in Singapore reflects the relatively low levels of education among the older generation and the rapid expansion of education opportunities over the past 50 years.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Singapore's education system and economy have been transformed in two generations

Whereas only 21% of 55-65 year-olds in Singapore have completed tertiary education, 74% of 25-34 year-olds have.

It isn't just about more students entering higher education, the higher skills in Singapore reflect the quality of the country's school system, as seen in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results.

England has also seen a considerable expansion of education opportunities over the past decades.

For example, while 35% of 55-65 year-olds had not completed secondary education, this is true of only 17% of 25-34 year-olds.

But in England, the expansion of education opportunities for younger generations has not translated into measurably better skills.

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Image caption The survey emphasises the importance of workers being able to update their skills

Greece, another country that has joined the survey, has expanded access to higher levels of education even more extensively than England.

Some 50% of Greeks aged 55-65, but only 15% of 25-34 year-olds, have not completed upper secondary education.

But the younger age group only scores six percentage points higher in literacy, on average, than the older age group - one of the narrowest differences among all countries.

So England, and many other countries too, can do much better in equipping more people with the skills needed to collaborate, compete and connect. They can perhaps learn from New Zealand, another newcomer to the survey.

Adults in New Zealand performed better than any of the 33 participating countries in their ability to solve problems in digital environments.

But awarding more degrees isn't the only answer.

The challenge is to improve the quality of schools and universities and to provide the kind of lifelong learning opportunities that can help older generations improve their skills.

The Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Canada do this very well.

They've developed programmes, both in and outside the workplace, that are relevant to users and flexible, both in content and in how the programmes are delivered.

They've made information about adult education opportunities easy to find and understand, and they recognise and certify skills, which encourages adult learners to keep learning. They've also made skills everybody's business, with governments, employers and individuals all engaged.

The survey also shows that skills will only make a difference for individuals and nations if they are used effectively.

For example, young Greeks have better numeracy skills than young Americans, but the survey shows that the American economy is much better than the Greek in extracting value from skills in the workplace.

Japanese adults scored highest on the literacy and numeracy tests, but rigidities in the Japanese labour market and women's low rates of participation in the workforce prevent Japan from turning its skills into better jobs.

And yet, countries don't have to choose between developing and using talent. Singapore is among the countries that get both parts of the equation right. The country can both develop its population's skills to a high standard and then benefit from them.

As the survey also shows, adults in many countries are not well-matched with their jobs.

They are either too highly skilled, or not skilled enough, for the demands of their job; or they may be working in a field completely different from the one in which they earned their qualifications.

This kind of mismatch has real consequences for young people's earnings prospects and productivity.

Knowing which skills are needed in the labour market and which education pathways will get young people to where they want to be is essential.

High-quality career guidance services, complemented with up-to-date information about labour-market prospects, can help young people make sound career choices.

In the end, everyone need to be involved: governments, education systems, employers, unions and individuals.

It's worth getting this right. Without the right skills, people will languish on the margins of society, technological progress will not translate into economic growth, and countries won't be able to compete in the global economy.

We simply can't develop fair and inclusive policies, and help people to fully participate in society, if people lack a proficiency in basic skills.