Spreading a bit of money to “position Singapore for the future”

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Singapore was mentioned favourably in a recent Economist magazine leader.

But the biggest change is to make adult learning routinely accessible to all. One way is for citizens to receive vouchers that they can use to pay for training. Singapore has such “individual learning accounts”; it has given money to everyone over 25 to spend on courses from 500 approved providers. So far each citizen has only a few hundred dollars, but it is early days.

— The Economist, 14 Jan 2017, Learning and earning: Equipping people to stay ahead of technological change

We will probably hear more about this in the coming weeks. The Committee on the Future Economy is supposed to have completed its work by the end of 2016, and anytime now, its report should be released. This committee was tasked to “keep the Singapore economy competitive by helping to position Singapore for the future, as well as identify areas of growth with regard to regional and global developments.”

Every few years or so, the government goes through this kind of pregnancy like a she-elephant, setting up a “heavyweight” committee to ponder the future. Each time, there is the tacit admission that the previous report had been overtaken by trends and events in the world, thus a new committee needed. The fact that each committee’s often-lumbering recommendations produced no more than a cyclical blip in our economy (if even that) seems not to discourage the she-elephant from being in heat again.

We can expect the present committee’s report to contain verbiage about upskilling and lifelong learning. Perhaps there will be an enhancement of the aforementioned “individual learning accounts” within the SkillsFuture programme.

SkillsFuture

Launched on 1 January 2016, the programme gives money credits to every Singapore citizen aged 25 and above — currently pegged at $500 per person. The individual can choose to enrol in a huge number of approved courses (many of which are said to be bite-sized) and the credits can be used to pay for them.

From January 2016, Singaporeans aged 25 and above will get $500 worth of SkillsFuture credits that can be used to pay for a variety of courses, ranging from financial literacy to photography and cooking.

The amount will not expire and the Government will provide periodic top-ups, so Singaporeans can save up to pay for more expensive courses.

— Straits Times, 1 Jan 2016, SkillsFuture launch: From making bread to analysing the universe, 14 interesting courses to consider

A press statement issued by SkillsFuture on 8 January 2017 said that in the first year of operation, 126,000 Singaporeans had tapped their SkillsFuture credits. Of these, 34% tapped their SkillsFuture credit more than once. There were now “over 18,000 approved skills-related courses” offered by “over 700 training providers”.

 

The statement also reported that utilisation was quite evenly spread across all age groups, as seen from this pie chart that was embedded in the press release.

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This pie chart was captioned “Figure 1: Distribution of SkillsFuture Credit (SFC) utilisation, by age group“.  It is a frustratingly poor caption, because it does not say if these percentages represent dollar values or headcounts (or something else). Some staff within SkillsFuture need to go back to school.

Nor can you find out from the press statement the total dollar value of credits utilised. All it reveals is that “The average utilisation was highest among Singaporeans aged 25 to 29, at almost $400 per person”; it is mysteriously silent about the average utilisation among other age groups.

Some of the training options take the form of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The statement had an annex that listed the ten most popular MOOC courses. Top of the list was “An entire MBA in 1 course: Award winning business school prof” — which firstly is difficult to parse and secondly, sounds veritably fishy. Number 10 in popularity stakes was “How I hit #1 on Google: The complete 2015 SEO course.” I have no idea what “SEO” is but the title of the training course is too breathless to be taken seriously. Examples like these raise questions about the accreditation process.

All that aside, the principle is sound: It is in the public interest to assist people with continuing learning. What is lacking is any plan to deal with the bigger picture.

The bigger picture

Micro training courses can only go so far. They are probably most useful for adding skills a person may need to perform his current job better. However, the challenge in the future is the obsolescence of entire industries and jobs. People may need to switch careers completely, e.g. from operating a lathe to being a dental nurse.

To succeed in making such a major switch, just taking a couple of bite-sized courses in the evenings will not be enough. The person will almost surely have to quit the existing job and go back to school full-time for a couple of years.

SkillsFuture may argue that since the initial $500 credit does not expire and since the intention is for the government to top-up with additional money from time to time, a Singaporean should be able to accumulate enough over time to pay a substantial part of the course fee. No doubt it helps, but the course fee is not the only issue. Such a person wanting to switch careers would likely be in his or her thirties and forties, with families to support and elderly parents needing medical care. The elderly may need domestic workers to look after them too, and domestic workers need to be paid.

Where is all that money going to come from if one needs to quit a job and go back to school?

If we look at it wholistically, we can see that the crux of the problem is that adults, especially mid-career ones, have a lot of dependants and financial commitments. Typically, he or she would also be paying off a mortgage. To make things worse, housing loans for most borrowers are (a) designed on the assumption of a borrower remaining in work for up to 30 years without much of a break, and (b) linked to continuing CPF (Central Provident Fund) payments. If a person quits a job, the CPF inflow stops.

Consequently, when it comes to realising the goals of life-long learning and career-switching, throwing a bit of money here and there, together with slick selling, are not proper solutions. We have to start thinking about the financial life-cycle of a person. What sort of financial burdens can we realistically expect this person to bear if we expect him to stop work every tenth year and undertake two or three years of re-education? And, as always in such scenario planning, we must think in terms of the person in the 20th or 30th percentile of income earners, not the high-fliers.

Then it becomes clear that we need to address questions such as:

  • What costs of living are consistant with the family’s economic viability?
  • What should housing prices be like?
  • What should be the costs (and risk-range of costs) of medical care?
  • How much should education (for this person and his children) cost?

Will the report of the Committee on the Future Economy get into these questions? Or would doing so invite too much scrutiny of previous and existing policies across a gamut of issues? Too much scrutiny for the ruling party to bear?

On the other hand, if the report isn’t thorough enough, you can bet that it will be past its use-by date in no time and she-elephant will need to get pregnant again.

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