Speech at Singapore Business Federation Forum 2012
Dr Amy Khor, Minister of State (Health and Manpower), Resorts World Sentosa
Mr Victor Tay, COO, Singapore Business Federation
Mdm Ho Geok Choo, CEO, Human Capital (Singapore)
Mr Gilbert Tan, Acting CEO, Employment and Employability Institute
Distinguished speakers, ladies and gentlemen,
- A very good morning to all of you. I am indeed very pleased to be here this morning, to hear your thoughts on an issue that is highly relevant to all business leaders. I am glad that the Singapore Business Federation has organised this timely event for all of us to come together to explore strategies to sustain an effective and productive workforce.
Global and demographic challenges
- Companies everywhere today grapple with two key challenges. First, the continuing uncertainty in Europe and America has slowed global demand for goods and services, and this slowdown has spilled over to emerging markets. Second, amidst these cyclical economic challenges, many developed countries are also facing a greying population, as the baby boomer generation transits into retirement.
- Singapore, too, faces similar demographic challenges. At current birth rates and without immigration, the working age population will start to decrease by 2020. Yet, with our small land size and infrastructural limits, we face real physical constraints on how much foreign manpower we can bring in to meet the demand from our companies.
Maximising the potential of every Singaporean in an ageing workforce
- There is thus an urgent need for us to relook at the way we grow our economy. While the full impact of the ageing population, or the silver tsunami as some may say, may still be some ten years away, some companies have already come to the realisation that their best, most experienced workers are getting older. Companies need to start building up the capabilities to tackle these challenges now. In fact, ten years is not too far away. You could say that the silver tsunami is really knocking on our doors now, and it is not too soon for companies to start preparing to meet these challenges. Companies need to tackle these challenges to be well-placed to continue to grow and flourish, ten, twenty and even fifty years down the road.
- Good employees are the best resource that companies can have, especially in today’s tight labour market and I think the fact that all of you are here today shows that we all know this is the most critical factor. Companies must therefore implement good workplace practices in order to develop, attract and retain talent.
Taking a holistic approach in addressing the capabilities and constraints of the workforce
- Every worker possesses unique skills, but also faces a unique set of challenges and circumstances. Thus, companies need to better understand the capabilities and constraints of all segments of their workforce, and tailor their workplace practices to maximise the potential of each worker.
- For instance, companies have rightly started to pay more attention to older workers, as they form a growing segment of the workforce. Companies can automate work processes or redesign jobs to reduce physical strain among older workers, extending their working lives and also alleviating manpower shortages. By putting in place good management practices, older workers can be just as effective, if not more effective, than younger workers. In fact, good workplace practices enable a more effective and productive workforce overall.
- Measures implemented to help specific groups of workers often also have a wider impact. For example, while job redesign brings obvious benefits to older workers, it also has a positive impact on other staff. ONI Global Pte Ltd, a wholesaler and retailer of health supplements, reaped these wider benefits when it tapped on the Advantage! scheme from the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) to purchase a machine which automatically wraps pallets in their factory. This means that workers no longer need to work at heights to wrap the top of pallets, reducing the risk of accidents overall. Not only that, the quality of the film wrapping is now higher and more consistent. Thus, a one-time investment has benefited all workers and raised productivity too.
- Implementing good workplace practices does not necessarily involve spending large sums of money on automation or technology. These could be simple but innovative changes in work processes, better HR practices or just simply providing adequate training. Bodynits, a manufacturer of active wear specializing in stretch, technical and performance fabric, reorganised their factory to improve process flow. They set up hooks and holders on the walls so that tools could be hung on them, freeing up table space work space and making it easier for workers to find them. They sorted reels of thread by colour to reduce time spent searching for the right threads. They also removed obstacles to traffic flow in the factory. These changes may seem small, even intuitive, but they increased efficiency and also reduced the odds of workplace accidents. According to a study by Hay Group in March this year, more than half the companies surveyed had seen the benefits of, and are streamlining their business processes through, workflow redesign. But while we are making progress, we can, and must certainly do more.
Progressive HR practices to attract and retain human capital
- In today’s competitive labour market, effective and progressive HR management is crucial. Companies must be able to address employees’ needs and aspirations in order to attract new hires and retain talent. One example is work-life balance, a catchword much talked about but still not practised widely enough. A recent study by the Ministry of Manpower showed that most economically inactive residents, especially those above 50 years old, would be keen to return to the workforce if they were offered part time work or flexible work arrangements.1 This could be because older individuals may need to look after their families, or prefer more time to pursue activities they enjoy outside of work.
- This sentiment is in fact shared by younger employees as well. A separate study conducted jointly by the Singapore National Employers Federation and StrategiCom in 20102 showed that work-life balance was one of the top five factors affecting employee attraction and retention. Employers must hence recognise that flexible work arrangements are increasingly sought after not just by older workers or back-to-work women, but by all employees.
- Another key aspect of good HR management is training. Training is not only an enabler of productive human capital, but is also a good way to groom talent in an organisation. Companies are strongly encouraged to tap on the generous support that WDA provides, and send their workers, including older workers, for training. The reality is that with stiff competition for talent and manpower, companies will have to be more proactive in unlocking the potential of human capital.
Intergenerational talent management and knowledge retention
- Lastly, I would like to talk about an aspect of good HR management which is critical to sustainability and continuity. This is about knowledge retention and talent management. Older workers possess a wealth of experience and knowledge that they have honed over the years, which younger staff may not possess. An extensive review of research which was published in the International Journal of Organisational Behaviour showed that older workers are more reliable, have better knowledge and expertise, and deliver better quality at work.
- While older workers now work longer and are able to contribute even beyond retirement age, effective knowledge retention techniques and succession planning are critical to ensure that their tacit knowledge is not lost.
For example, companies can let older workers transit to mentorship positions, allowing them to continue working while developing younger colleagues. Some companies call this mixed teams. In a greying labour force, such arrangements also help older workers who work in demanding jobs to scale down to a level which suits their physical abilities.
- PSA Corporation is a good example of a company that has benefited from tapping on the expertise of older workers to train younger staff. 53-year old Mr Pang Chong Liu has been with the company for 17 years. Starting out as a Container Equipment Specialist, Mr Pang was promoted to Operations Supervisor and now works with PSA’s training arm to administer training and mentor new recruits. With his operational experience, positive attitude and proficiency with technology, Mr Pang has improved the yard crane training syllabus and enhanced the rigour of the assessments.
He is also undergoing the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) Advanced Certificate in Training and Assessment (ACTA) which will arm him with the essential skills to deliver training and assessment. PSA benefits from better-trained Container Equipment Specialists who provide reliable, efficient and highly productive service. Thus, if knowledge retention techniques are implemented holistically and cater to the needs of an intergenerational workforce, better learning and better working relationships between staff can be achieved.
- Today, we come together to discuss many important manpower issues that concern all of us. This is an excellent opportunity for us to share our best practices and learn from one another, especially during the Community of Practice later today. I am confident that if we start to build our capabilities in managing our ageing workforce now, we will be better placed to tackle the challenges we face now and what’s coming ahead too.
- Thank you and I wish all of you a most fruitful time here today.