How Singapore is addressing talent gaps in the smart manufacturing sector

By Malminderjit Singh Posted 4yr(s) ago Reading Time: About 5 minutes

Smart manufacturing is a game changer

Speaking at the closing panel of the recently concluded Smart Manufacturing Asia conference in Singapore, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) director Nigel Stacey noted that smart manufacturing could be a key driver for Singapore's growth going forward.

“[BCG] did a study on [smart manufacturing] in Singapore and we believe that it could be a real game changer for Singapore,” he said. “Labour productivity could increase by 30 percent and we think that it could lead to a net increase of 22,000 jobs over the next 10 years. Average salaries could increase by 50 percent.”

The impact of these gains on the economy, Stacey quoted, is estimated at about S$36 billion in terms of increased manufacturing output and additional company revenues.

Singapore's manufacturing output rose 10.2 percent in March 2017 from a year ago, following a 12.6 percent increase in February. A report by the Committee on the Future Economy suggests that smart manufacturing could help the manufacturing sector in Singapore maintain its share of about 20 percent of the country's economy in the future.

Skills gap leading to talent shortage

However, one of the challenges the sector faces is the shortage of talent that can facilitate companies' transformation to smart manufacturing. The problem, according to Yeoh Pit Wee, director of operations for Asia-Pacific, Europe, Middle East and Africa at Rockwell Automation, is that the type of talent required for smart manufacturing is different from that for the general manufacturing sector.

“We are looking for someone who understands business processes, operations, technologies and people,” Yeoh said. He explained that smart manufacturing requires engineers who can understand the processes, machines and technology on the shop floor in a way that integrates their working. That person should then be able to convert the generated data into enterprise-level information so that decision-makers can use it to make informed decisions. The panel added that smart manufacturing demands specific skills in rapid prototyping, design thinking and complex diagnostics.

This need for complex and cross-functional skills has led to an acute talent shortage in the manufacturing sector. A study by the Singapore Management University (SMU) and JP Morgan shows that the electronics and electrical engineering manufacturing sector – which is the largest component of Singapore's manufacturing base – currently faces a skills gap. The report added that this “skills gap is set to widen as Singapore moves towards an innovation-driven economy, especially in newer engineering fields like robotics and digital manufacturing”, with the demand for skills in cybersecurity and data analytics growing rapidly.

Companies in Singapore are working to address this gap

A white paper authored by Accenture and supported by Singapore's Economic Development Board (EDB) lists four strategies that can effectively address the talent demands of smart manufacturing in Singapore. These include the need for:

  • Closer collaboration between industry and government to map out the technical skills required for Industry 4.0.
  • Educational institutions, research institutes, private sector and government agencies to implement new ways to foster cross-functional learning.
  • Labour unions, trade associations and business chambers to communicate digital developments to the workforce and prepare them for this transition.
  • Organisations to implement programmatic interventions at all levels of the company.

Some companies are already taking steps to address the skills gap within the industry here. Members on the panel shared various initiatives their companies had been undertaking. These include incentivising employees to cultivate end-to-end thinking through innovative training methods, encouraging cross-functional learning through projects to build internal capabilities, and establishing in-house academies to help workers gain perspectives into design thinking and diagnostics.

Although retraining existing employees to upskill according to needs is one option, that in itself presents challenges. As Yeoh revealed, not everyone is able to pick up cross-functional skills as some employees are trained in linear fields of engineering, such as mechanical or electrical. Further, older engineers may not be able to easily pick up new skills such as coding.

“We have to first see if this new job scope is really for them,” Yeoh said. “We then have to consider the person's skill set and where we can fit them into the organisation.”

However, he acknowledged that even fresh graduates did not bring with them the requisite skill set. It takes his company 12 to 18 months to train new hires to understand what digital transformation is all about, and to inculcate a cross-functional work mindset.

The Singapore government’s efforts in building the talent pipeline

Industry leaders believe the government can play a key role in plugging this skills gap, by both building a pipeline of future talent and retraining current workers. Joseph Lee, head of Yokogawa's Co-Innovation Centre and general manager of its Singapore Development Centre, shared that polytechnics and universities should start training graduates faster in these future skills. Yeoh added that the government should invest in a smart manufacturing lab in partnership with academia, so workers could gain firsthand experience in smart manufacturing technologies at the system or process level.

Indeed, the government has been proactive in implementing schemes to address the talent shortage in the manufacturing industry, which employs about 245,000 local workers. One of these initiatives is the Professional Conversion Programmes (PCPs) to help more than 1000 professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMET) switch careers or retrain in new skills such as data analytics. In April, eight new PCPs were announced, in addition to the 36 launched last year, dedicated to training mid-career professionals for the manufacturing sector. At the same time, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say also announced the SkillsFuture Career Advisor Programme, under which those looking to shift to manufacturing will have access to 75 manufacturing industry veterans as career advisors.

To avoid a skills mismatch between companies and newly trained workers, the government also runs Place-and-Train and Attach-and-Train programmes. The former places workers with companies before training them, whereas the latter trains professionals for specific skills before placing them. These schemes complement other long-term initiatives such as SkillsFuture, which is designed to train Singaporeans in the skills of the future economy, including smart manufacturing.

These joint public-private efforts will allow the manufacturing sector in Singapore to source job-ready talent, attract a higher percentage of fresh graduates and mid-career professionals, build digital capabilities to enable existing talent, and retain talent by reducing the exodus of engineers to non-manufacturing industries.

This article was written based on a panel session that Future Ready Singapore attended at the Smart Manufacturing Asia conference (4-5 April 2017). 

Edited by Kritika Srinivasan, Clement Cher and Marisa Low.

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