It is time to look beyond paper qualifications and cater to the diverse needs and talents of our students, says business owner and youth mentor Farhan Firdaus.
It has often been said that running a business takes more than just book knowledge. To get ahead, the businessman should be able to understand the lay of the land, adjust deftly to the market, read people well, and communicate effectively, among other less tangible skills conveniently called "street smarts".
After starting several businesses and closing a few in the past 10 years, I can say that those smarts are essential not only in the people running the business, but also in the employees.
As an employer, I look beyond my staff's paper qualifications for qualities such as an openness to learn, resilience in the face of setbacks, a genuine interest in the industry and good values.
My digital marketer, for example, was hired to design graphics but learnt to build websites and produce videos within a year. He was tuned in to the changing demands of digital communications and saw how the business relied on it, and picked up the skills without once saying it was outside his job scope.
Last year, I took part in MOE's Review of Opportunities and Pathways in Applied Education engagement exercises, to improve the resilience, diversity and flexibility of polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) pathways.
One year on, the chair of the review, Second Minister for Education Maliki Osman, announced six recommendations to be implemented progressively at the five polytechnics and three ITE colleges.
The review's recommendations cover three areas:
1. Strengthening students' career readiness and resilience for the future economy
- Enhance ITEs' curricular structure
- Expand opportunities for deeper industry exposure
- Strengthen LifeSkills competency development
2. Recognising diversity and providing more flexibility and opportunities for all
- Provide additional flexibility for polytechnic students in their curriculum
3. Building stronger and more integrated support systems for all students
- Strengthen student support measures for students with higher needs
- Enhance post-graduation career guidance
Developing a passion for learning
When I was a student at ITE and polytechnic, the course content and structures were straightforward, and focused on hard technical skills. However, future graduates need broader skill sets and perspectives beyond their chosen fields and courses, to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world.
How can this appetite for learning and upskilling be encouraged? Graduates will appreciate the value of continually upgrading themselves when their learnt experience jibes with their lived experience in the working world. The foundations for this are already being forged at the polytechnics and ITE.
In the polytechnics, courses have been reviewed to enhance multidisciplinary learning. For example, students can opt for elective modules and minors in emerging skills, such as artificial intelligence and data analytics, to complement their main discipline. Some courses are also designed around workplace competencies rather than subjects, and students work on real-world projects with companies in partnership.
Furthermore, with the enhanced LifeSkills competency curriculum for both polytechnics and ITE, graduates will be equipped in non-technical areas, such as financial, media and digital literacy, resilience and communication skills, and cross-cultural perspectives.
ITE has introduced post-diploma modules and certificates that support learning while you work. Polytechnics offer everything from bite-sized courses to skills certificates, and further education programmes for adult learners.
Exposure to the working world
Job attachments and course projects should expose students to current trends and new technology. There could be opportunities for job shadowing and gig work to help them experience the real world impact of their work, as well as cultivate workplace competencies, such as marketing basics and negotiation skills. Doing so requires investment and support from the industry. I was heartened to meet many fellow industry representatives during the review's engagement sessions who had this same sense of responsibility towards educating and inspiring our youth.
Beyond training, our focus on hiring should also be on the individual, and not what schools they attended, which courses they picked, or how quickly they completed their studies.
One of my mentees, Jon, was feeling unmotivated at work and wanted to resign. As a typical Gen Z employee, he was more spontaneous and eager to contribute beyond his job scope. But his manager ring-fenced his role according to his diploma qualifications.
After being assigned to a different manager, who focused more on the objectives at hand, Jon was given the opportunity to learn the ropes on the job, as well as flexibility and autonomy under supervision. Soon, he was leading the Singapore operations and bringing an innovative spirit to the business. Why? Because he found fulfilment in his work.
Around seven in 10 secondary school students in Singapore go on to attend a polytechnic or ITE. The latest recommendations will cater to a greater diversity of needs and talents, and add to the national conversations around what success means for Singaporeans.
I look forward to seeing how these changes affect the attitudes, aspirations and adaptability of students who will lead the charge to bolster Singapore's businesses and economy.
Farhan Firdaus is a business owner, youth mentor and member of the review of opportunities and pathways in applied education led by the Ministry of Education. He is also a partner at Meet Ventures, an innovation consulting firm that brings together large corporations and start-ups.
This opinion piece was first published in The Straits Times on 9 April 2022.