Singapore’s skills shortage—all in the mind?

The secret to closing the skills gap in Singapore could be an attitudinal shift toward productivity and personal growth, says ServiceNow Asia HR Director Michael Tan

The secret to closing Singapore's skills gap could be an attitudinal shift toward a growth mindset.

Business leaders in Singapore are facing an acute skills shortage. Estimates suggest Singapore will need to add another 1.2 million workers with digital skills by 2025 if it wants to remain competitive. The problem has only been amplified by a pandemic-driven rise in digital business models.

Filling those roles remains a challenge, with insufficient local graduates to meet demand for tech skills and rising costs of hiring foreign talent–both due to changing government policies and upward pressure on salaries. And while Singapore’s students score famously high on standardised tests in mathematics and literature, they’re also less likely than OECD averages to have a growth mindset, defined as the belief that abilities and intelligence can develop over time.

What can Singapore do to grow, or otherwise gain, the skills to thrive? The answer may lie in unlearning some widely held HR practices and investing in a mindset shift that has so far eluded Singapore’s workforce.

An appetite for lifelong growth

“The most important skill I’ve learnt has been to unlearn,” says Michael Tan, ServiceNow’s HR director for Asia. “Some of the things I’ve picked up over the years may apply, but a lot also don’t.”

After more than 20 years in Procter & Gamble, Tan joined ServiceNow toward the end of 2021. He found himself constantly challenging the way he’d always done things. “Every morning I have to tell myself: this is not P&G,” Tan admits. “That growth mindset, approaching this new role as a student and asking those questions, has made the transition much easier, both in picking up new things and building that rapport with my colleagues.”

It’s a mindset that is being increasingly cultivated at ServiceNow and many other organisations around the world.

“From Day 1 of joining us, we encourage our people to think about how their careers are going to transform,” says Ann Ann Low, LinkedIn’s senior director for talent development in Asia Pacific. “We’re constantly asking very specific questions, like what skills do you need to get to your higher level of performance? What areas are you interested in? That helps to then identify areas where they can develop and practise the skills they need, which not only broadens their capabilities but cultivates this ongoing readiness to learn and grow.”

LinkedIn uses a range of methods to develop employees’ skills and improve their experience at the company. They include quarterly surveys of employee sentiment, along with midyear reviews and tools for managers that focus on better aligning employees’ individual goals to opportunities in the business.

LinkedIn facilitates internal mobility via an internal talent marketplace, “job fairs” for internal roles, and skills development courses that prepare employees for new roles. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this approach boosts retention rates and helps retain skilled individuals who would otherwise have left for competitors.

“We try to be as deliberate as possible in making sure that the right conversations happen at the right time for our employees to be constantly moving forward,” Low explains. “It’s a matter of making sure we create platforms and resources to support employees on their journey.” Standardised tools and processes make it easier for managers to help employees navigate those career transformations. One example: Motivator Mapping, which employs a 15-minute questionnaire that helps managers identify what factors motivate and demotivate each person on their team.

“The one thing that can’t be stolen from you are skills that you put into practice,” says Low. “Tools like Motivator Mapping help to create these honest, candid discussions that help us set goals tailored to each individual, and then give them the exposure and experience in skills they need to get to those goals.”

Do good processes trump the workplace gym?

A broad rethink of organisational processes can benefit HR leaders, particularly when it comes to empowering employees to do their best work and achieve fulfilment in their roles.

“When I hire a sales executive, they’re supposed to spend most of their time selling–with customers, showing the value they can have,” Tan explains. “But if we profile sales personnel in some companies, a lot of their time is spent trapped in internal processes. I need to submit a report. I need to put in a claim. The claim requires these three steps. These steps just got rejected. These processes prevent them from doing what they’re actually meant to do, which is selling.”

HR leaders often focus on benefits to help employees better balance their time between work and the rest of their lives. But investing in processes that help people work more effectively can deliver far greater dividends, Tan argues. A recent LinkedIn study found that the percentage of Singaporean workers who listed “good work-life balance” as a priority grew by 10.4% during the pandemic. That figure was dwarfed by the 26.2% increase in workers who prioritised “employee autonomy”, a proxy for doing one’s job more effectively.

“Sometimes we tackle work-life balance by giving more benefits, more wellbeing workshops, gym access–I’m guilty of it too,” says Tan. “But we’re not getting to the real issue: they don’t even have the time to use those benefits. If you invest more time on fixing the processes, you’ll free up a lot more time for your people, and issues around work-life balance will start to naturally resolve themselves.”

A matter of motivation

Can a growth mindset and better processes actually help plug the holes in organisational skillsets? Singapore’s leaders think so. Over time, government policy has evolved from a heavy focus on efficiency and automation in the 1980s to a more nuanced emphasis on adaptability and reskilling in recent years.

Singapore’s government has led the charge with skills and training initiatives increasingly aimed at students and graduates. And given that skills for the same job in Singapore have changed an average of 31% between 2015 and 2021, training workers to be more adaptable seems an investment well worth making.

Incentives alone won’t convince people to change how they think about the systems they work within, let alone their core values when it comes to the meaning and value of work. Especially not when, contrary to the rest of the world’s emphasis on work-life balance, excellent compensation and benefits remain the top motivator for Singaporean employees. For Tan, that’ll likely only change in the next generation of Singaporeans, one he hopes will be far more exposed to disruption and adaptation than previous ones.

A lot of people today think they already know how everything works, and they limit the sources of wisdom that they will tap into.

“If you’re able to make the Singaporean workforce more resilient through experiencing many changes at early career stages, then initiatives like SkillsFuture [the Singaporean government’s nationwide upskilling program] just help them accelerate a little further–because the DNA of adapting to whatever changes are thrown at them is already there,” says Tan. “But if the mindset is ‘no, this is how I’ve done things for the past 20 years,’ then things are going to be tough, no matter what incentives or perks for upskilling you provide.”

Low’s experience suggests the journey begins with a greater emphasis on humility. “I think one challenge is that a lot of people today think they already know how everything works, and they limit the sources of wisdom that they will tap into,” Low says. “For me, the converse is true: learning from small business owners, those in social services, teachers, doctors. They’re often the ones who ask me the deepest questions and challenge me the most.

“When you adopt this growth mindset, you’re thinking about career progression as more than just climbing a ladder. You’re looking to learn and seek out feedback and see a holistic picture of your own development as a person.”

“It really starts with leadership,” Tan says. “If you’re saying you want to invest in technology but still insist on paper documents, nothing will change. The same goes for encouraging a growth mindset. We as leaders need to walk the talk and, dare I say, unlearn for ourselves before our people will.” That’s one skill everyone, no matter their work or role, could use a little more of.