Hey, World Leaders, This Tiny Nation Wants to Eat Your Lunch

Here in the U.S., our leaders (and would-be leaders) have been busy talking about how to make higher education more affordable. I’ve been saying for a while now that putting college within reach is only one step toward leveling the playing field and bringing better futures within reach for a broader swath of the population. The other important part of the equation is supporting the ongoing training needs of those whose college days are already behind them — workers in the 21st century economy, where technology changes the tools we use so quickly, the only way to keep up is by making continuous learning the norm.

What people learn in college isn’t necessarily what employers seek and, regardless, they need to keep building their skills throughout their careers to stay competitive. This isn’t just a U.S. problem. Look around and you’ll see the UK battling its own skills gap. In other developed countries, as birth rates are declining and the workforce is aging, it’s getting harder to find qualified workers. Meanwhile, in the developing world, growing populations face rapid urbanization, education systems can’t scale up, and youth unemployment is a big problem. At either end of the spectrum, individuals can only enjoy improved economic opportunity when they have access to the most up-to-date, relevant job skills. And traditional economies must transform into knowledge-based economies that are well-positioned to compete for future growth.

So, it’s significant that in Singapore, a country with only about 5.5 million citizens, the government is taking real action. To close the skills gap and improve employability, Singapore has launched the SkillsFuture program, an innovative program that could serve as a model to other countries as well.

Singapore’s achievement represents a big leap in scale for a government to leverage digital technology to upskill all of its citizens. Under SkillsFuture, every working adult age 25 and older receives S$500 to put toward skills-based learning resources approved by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA), supported by public agencies, and offered through approved training organizations and partners like my company, Udemy.

For Singapore, the SkillsFuture program is not a catch-up act; it represents an entire nation looking at the same unknown future we all face and choosing to be proactive and innovative about it. Globalization is nothing new, of course, and it’s not going away. Outsourcing impacts thousands of low-skill workers, and now we’re starting to see the effects of automation in many industries as well. Singapore is trying to get and stay ahead of the curve by preparing to meet the needs of the global economy with lifelong learning and skills training.

Singapore’s SkillsFuture program is a wake-up call to other countries because we all are feeling the same pressures of technology automation and globalization. While individuals share some responsibility for keeping their skill sets current, governments need to follow Singapore’s lead and do more to help working adults too. That includes providing financial support for people to pursue skills training, regardless of when they earned a college degree. The good news is that online technology is breaking time and space barriers, and the private sector is starting to step up too. Udemy, for example, just announced a partnership with Microsoftto offer online skills training to youth in the Middle East and Africa (MENA), where unemployment rates continue to climb.

Just as investments in infrastructure and healthcare have tremendous macro benefits, so too do investments in lifelong skills training. The government of Singapore knows this. Does the U.S.?

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