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Future of work: Tech-enabled freedom

SINGAPORE (Aug 6): Imagine hosting an international business conference from a deck chair on a beach, through a laptop and virtual reality device. Midway through your presentation, a robot brings you a cocktail. It does not matter that you are in surf shorts — the audience, also plugged into VR devices, only sees an augmented reality (AR) image of you on a stage. Not too far-fetched? That is because all that technology is already available.

Working remotely, and freelance on so-called “gigs”, has been enhanced by the proliferation of tech such as VR, AR, artificial intelligence, robotics, automation and big data analytics. Businesses in Singapore have been repeatedly exhorted to embrace new technologies as a key competitive advantage.

Yet, the same tech and trend have people worried about job security, with the possibility that a large number of workers across various sectors will become obsolete. The threat is real, but perhaps not so straightforward.

For one, there are not actually that many jobs that can be directly automated. Rather, about 60% of all jobs in Singapore could have about 30% of their activities automated, by 2030. “Forty-two per cent of [workplace] activities — not jobs [but] activities — can theoretically be automated by technology today,” says Lim Diaan-Yi, senior partner at management consulting firm McKinsey. Lim was speaking at the World Bank’s Disruptive Technology for Development event here in July, which gathered executives from multinational employers and public sector officials. But, she qualifies, “That’s a theoretical potential. It requires companies to actually deploy [the technology], train people, redesign jobs, etc.”

The use of automation in workplaces in Singapore has doubled to the current 14% from just 7% three years ago, according to advisory and broking firm Willis Towers Watson. That figure is expected to double again, to 29%, in the next three years.

Already, from Changi Airport to supermarkets and fast-food chains, self-service kiosks are quickly displacing front-line staff. Most recently, Singapore’s second-largest bank, Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp, announced it would cut half of its bank-teller jobs in the next two years. OCBC says the staff will be retrained and redeployed in advisory roles.

In a Microsoft-commissioned survey, Singaporeans felt that nearly all jobs now will be transformed as early as within the next three years, owing to digital transformation. They expect 62% of the jobs in the market today will be redeployed to higher-value roles or reskilled to meet future needs.

“The rise of digital transformation in Singapore will affect the labour market, where many types of jobs will evolve and change,” says Kevin Wo, managing director of Microsoft Singapore, in a statement accompanying the survey. “Governments and organisations should still focus on reskilling and upskilling, because continuous learning will be important in ensuring a successful workforce transformation for the digital age.

“What is encouraging is that 83% of the study’s respondents are confident that their young professionals already have future-ready skills that will help them transition to new roles,” he adds.

In 2015, the government launched SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), which subsidises study and practical courses for Singaporeans to help them develop new skills. Applicants aged 40 and above get more generous grants. The scheme may have been abused or squandered on frivolous pursuits by some. In December, it was revealed that SSG was cheated of almost $40 million through false claims for training grants.

However, the government is adamant about the SSG’s value.

“The new skills needed are so dynamic, it’s not possible for anyone planning a university curriculum four years ahead to know that that’s the right skillset. So, you need a rather more dynamic way of responding to the skill needs of the economy,” says Peter Ong, chairman of Enterprise Singapore, a government agency under the Ministry of Trade and Industry. “[SSG is] not just a programme but a national movement to get every Singaporean thinking about how they can reskill and retool themselves in an ever-changing workforce and work environment,” he adds.

Perhaps a useful approach towards the tech-enabled changing nature of work would be to embrace the freedom that it affords us. At the very least, not having to do repetitive, time-consuming and labour-intensive tasks, such as crunching numbers, allows people to focus on developing skills that are uniquely human — in healthcare and education, for example.

“We expect lots of growth in [roles] that require creative or artistic skills. While machines can replicate certain things, they are not great with original things,” McKinsey’s Lim says. “Machines also are not very good at making decisions. So, good news for those in senior management positions: Someone still needs to make decisions.”

Creativity and adept decision-making are also skills that are portable, to just about any role or location in the world — and job-seekers will need to be cognisant of that.

These days, more companies see employing gig workers as a competitive advantage; according to a global study published by employment services provider KellyOCG, 43% of organisations that engage gig workers experience at least 20% labour cost savings.

Technology is effectively leading to the globalisation of work. It has opened employers to talent from anywhere in the world. And so, the question is not whether workers can beat technology, but whether they can stay competitive — and beat the world.


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