, Singapore

In the COVID-19 era, are Singapore employers doing enough to truly develop talent?

By Jaime Lim

COVID-19 has thrown the importance of reskilling and upskilling workers into sharp relief, not just in the Singapore context, but globally.

Even before the economic fallout from the pandemic became apparent, studies had shown that business leaders were concerned about skills shortages and mismatches. In fact, according to PwC’s 2019 Talent Trends Report: Upskilling for a Digital World, 79% of global CEOs said they were ‘extremely’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned about the lack of essential skills among their employees.

For several years prior to this unprecedented crisis, the Singapore government had already been making a concerted effort to strengthen the ecosystem of upskilling, reskilling and more broadly, lifelong learning through initiatives such as SkillsFuture which provides generous training subsidies.

Since the pandemic, the government has intensified workforce upskilling and reskilling efforts through the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package which offers job, traineeship, and skills training opportunities to support Singaporeans affected by the economic impact of COVID-19. Employers can also receive absentee payroll subsidies for employees undergoing training. This is meant to stave off retrenchments as it not only helps businesses defray salary costs during challenging economic times, but allows employees to pick up new skills necessary for business recovery.

These initiatives are laudable and over the years, individuals have been advised to take ownership of their learning and development by identifying and going through key training programmes to boost their long-term employability.

However, shortages and mismatches have continued to be concerning, especially in the digital space. As digital transformation gathers pace today, there is an even greater urgency to address this issue.

The fact that business leaders’ worries about skills issues have not abated shows that more needs to be done. Perhaps the more pertinent question is: are business leaders doing their part to solve the problem?

The World Economic Forum, in its 2018 Future of Jobs report encouraged businesses to “take an active role in supporting their existing workforces through reskilling and upskilling”, as it pointed out that the “Fourth Industrial Revolution is interacting with other socio-economic and demographic factors to create a perfect storm of business model change in all industries, resulting in major disruptions to labour markets.”

My conversations with employees reveal that many employers tend not to provide a clear direction on specific skills needed for business growth. Some are even unwilling to give employees time off to undergo training programmes that happen to be conducted during working hours. Others are not willing to pay for unsubsidised programmes that might actually be beneficial to both the employee and the organisation.

Human resources leaders tell us that since COVID-19, organisations are more aware of their role in engendering a culture that is conducive to talent development. However, there is room to go much further.

For one thing, more needs to be done to ensure that employees’ training and development choices are congruent with evolving business needs. Jobseekers often tell me that knowing which training programme to sign up for to increase their career longevity whilst benefiting the organisation requires some guesswork. Instead of leaving employees to chart their upskilling and reskilling roadmap in isolation, business leaders need to engage them in a close partnership to take the guesswork out of the process and to discuss how they can be better supported in their upskilling and reskilling journey.

In-depth career conversations not only serve employees, but the organisation as a whole, ensuring that skills gaps emerge less frequently and if or when they emerge, are closed swiftly. It gives each party an opportunity to develop a strategic talent development plan aligned with business growth. Overall, this makes reskilling and upskilling more cost effective.

Such conversations should not be seen as a chore that you only engage in once a year during a performance appraisal. Now, more than ever, leaders need to foster a robust partnership with employees to thrive in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambigious) world.

I am a proponent of weekly or fortnightly one-on-one sessions during which employees discuss how they might be coping and adjusting to work demands, the challenges they face and possible solutions. Supervisors need to add value to this by sharing the company’s strategic plans, what skills might be needed to deliver business goals, discuss how these needs intersect with employees’ strengths, interests and career goals. Both parties can then come up with a talent development plan that is predicated on flexibility depending on how the business climate changes.

Aside from allowing organisations to meet business goals, such career conversations enable employees to become more self-aware as they discuss their goals and desired career trajectory.

Numerous studies have shown that people who are given opportunities to advance in their careers, whether it is through learning a new skill or taking on new responsibilities, are more engaged and therefore more likely to do whatever it takes for the organisation to grow whilst furthering their own growth and career longevity.

Such conversations also allow managers to develop more positive relationships with their direct reports.

Before any conversation, I recommend managers research their employees – be familiar with their current performance levels and even their learning styles, aspirations and goals.

Career conversation expert Russ Laraway whose approach led to a 10-point increase in engagement scores across Google, advises managers to focus on direct reports’ life stories during the first one-on-one meeting. He feels managers must understand the past and the future in order to help the individual grow, so he suggests opening with this question: “Starting with kindergarten, tell me about your life.” The key is to elicit information that enables you to understand what has shaped the individual’s aspirations. Focus on their major transitions, why they made them and what they learnt from them.

The second session should focus on dreams and aspirations, and the skills that employees need to acquire in order to achieve them, according to Laraway.

This meeting should include a discussion of how business priorities fit into the equation. 

Laraway says part of the discussion must be centred on how the manager can help in the development of skills. Are there in-house training or mentorship programmes that he or she can help the employee tap on? Is the company ready to pay for a course that may not be currently subsidised under government programmes?

The third session should focus on creating a career action plan using the knowledge gathered from your first two meetings. Business leaders need to establish clear expectations as they finalise this plan. This means defining the next steps and in discussion with the employee, developing strategies to overcome obstacles as well.

This partnership needs to be sustained with periodic meetings to ensure employees are on the right track and managers are facilitating talent development to the best of their abilities.
Career conversations are an effective way of engendering a culture of continual learning and development whilst increasing employee engagement and improving business outcomes. They help organisations optimise talent without having to fire employees and hire new ones to plug skills gaps, whilst enabling them to retain top performers.

Whilst the focus seems to be on digital transformation today, business leaders acknowledge that skilled human capital still forms the basis of successful strategic development and operational execution. In this equation, effective talent development partnerships are mutually beneficial in shaping future-ready employees and organisations that can weather unexpected storms and emerge more robust than before.  

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