, Singapore

The Future Skills That Singapore Needs Are Already Here

By Kyle Hegarty

This year Singapore began implementing major changes to their education curriculum by shifting the emphasis away from standardised tests towards building critical thinking skills. This is a smart move, but it will take years for the effects to benefit organisations who need these “future skills” today. Companies can’t wait that long.

In today’s hyper-evolving workplace, employees no longer need to know textbook answers, they need to know how to ask the right questions. Ginni Rometty, IBM’s CEO summed this up well at a recent APAC event saying, "An average skill, particularly in technology, has got a half life of three to five years. So, what do you do? You actually won't hire for skills any more, you will hire for propensity to learn." She is right but this begs the question: how do companies find this propensity to learn today in countries where students have been taught to ace tests rather than how to “learn how to learn”?

A few years ago, my company discovered a solution here in Singapore … by accident.

We were participating in an internship program with a local polytechnic, but it wasn’t working out. Unable to find students willing to take risks, ask questions or think critically about the projects we gave them, we were about to end the program. We were looking for people who could handle uncertainty. People who could be comfortable being uncomfortable and who quickly bounce back from failure and consider creative alternate solutions to unexpected problems. Then the school made a mistake and sent us Uma.

Uma was considered a disappointment, we learned, because she was “disruptive” asking too many questions in class and challenging teachers. Program administrators apologised because they had mistakenly sent a student with the worst grades rather than the best grades. But Uma’s failures at school turned out to be what we wanted. Channelled the right way, disruptive was a key part of the answer we were looking for. Uma was able to navigate ambiguous situations without freezing up and she learned new skills quickly and spoke up when she saw problems.

Uma serves as a powerful lesson that skills we need today aren’t necessarily found in candidates with traditionally stellar CVs. The talent is out there and has been right in front of us this whole time.

Ironically organisations who are in most need of these agile traits are guilty of perpetuating old hiring habits by insisting that graduates come from only top institutions and have the highest grades. Many companies here, both local and multi-national, won’t consider candidates even with twenty or more years of relevant experience if they don’t have a diploma. This is an example of a lack of critical thinking and it causes people like Uma to get overlooked.

Today organisations don’t need people with all the answers, they need people who know how to navigate uncertainty. The world needs people who can adapt. Organisations can learn from Uma by changing how they look for, and nurture, talent. Like future employees, organisations have to adapt because the government alone will not solve this problem.

Today, I advise my clients take their pile of job applicant CVs, flip them over and start from the candidates who “failed” based on measurements from the past. Agility, learning from failure and adaptability are the skills for the future and when organisations get creative, they can find local talent with these skills today.  

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