The Future of Jobs

By the SMU Social Media Team

The global workplace is changing—swiftly, and irrevocably, and with it, the employment landscape.

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics and nanotechnology are set to impact every facet of our lives—from homes and cars, to hospitals and factories, to entire cities. Accelerating advances in technology will totally transform how and where we work.

At the same time, shifting geopolitical, socio-economic and demographic forces are likely to have as radical an impact on employment as these advances in technology.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) “Future of Jobs” report, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution is interacting with other socio-economic and demographic factors to create a perfect storm of business model change in all industries, resulting in major disruptions to labour markets.”

The report estimates 65% of children entering primary school today will end up doing job types that don’t yet exist; and on average, by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today.

That’s a bewildering thought—and whether you’re currently in higher education or well into your career, your immediate response is likely to be “how do I ensure my skills are relevant?”

The WEF report, which is based on an extensive survey of Chief Human Resources and Strategy officers from 371 leading global employers across 9 industry sectors, does carry some words of encouragement, “the current technological revolution need not become a race between humans and machines but rather an opportunity for work to become a channel through which people recognise their full potential.”

Nevertheless, whether you’re a university student, fresh grad, or experienced mid-career professional, deciding where to focus your energies to build a life-long career, which brings fulfilment and a sustained income is becoming an increasingly daunting challenge. How can we position ourselves to navigate this ‘perfect storm’ and achieve success?

According to the WEF report, two key job types are likely to become critically important. The first is data analysts, who’ll be in demand to help companies make sense of all the data generated by disruptive technology. Second is ‘specialised sales representatives’ across all industries, who’ll be required to commercialise new innovations and reach new clients.

Senior management skills will also be important to steer companies through the upcoming disruption. And specialist technical skills will need to be balanced with the soft skills of persuasion, emotional intelligence and the ability to teach others.

The issue of “jobs and skills for the future” is one of the five key areas of focus for Singapore’s Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), which was set up by the government to create strategies to future-proof the Singapore economy.

One of the key recommendations in SMU’s faculty contribution to the CFE, led by Provost, Professor Lily Kong, highlights the importance of “learning to learn” the necessary skills to succeed in the future workforce.

SMU’s recommendations note that the role of academic institutions will remain central to ensuring an appropriately skilled talent pool, but the approach to learning will need to change to ensure workers are equipped with, “a balance of job-related skills as well as cross-job skills”.

To achieve this, universities will need to work more closely with industry to give students first-hand experience of the workplace; and it will be incumbent upon students themselves to ensure they have the necessary technical expertise combined with soft-skills to enable them to switch between industries and jobs more easily.


The notion that a bachelor’s degree will guarantee a job for life is already obsolete says Professor Themin Suwardy, SMU Dean, Postgraduate Professional Programmes—as new technologies de-skill previously skilled workers and companies increasingly opt to engage contract and freelance staff over permanent employees. “Gone are the days when you would do your initial bachelor degree and you are set for life,” he says, “you need to invest in your own development, be it self-directed learning, attending training or short courses, picking new certifications or pursuing a graduate degree. No matter what you do, realise that it is going to be norm rather than the exception.”

Professor Suwardy says the best way to prepare oneself to successfully navigate the unchartered territory of the future workforce is to become a ‘T-shaped’ professional—he explains, “If you are currently a specialist (the vertical part of T), then you should learn things adjacent to your underlying speciality and be broader in your knowledge and skills, so you can manage across functions. If you are currently a generalist (the horizontal part of T), it is worthwhile developing one or two areas of specialist knowledge that you can use to anchor your broad capabilities.”

And postgraduate degrees are likely to gain even greater relevance he says, “We need to understand that mastery of knowledge alone is not adequate. A graduate programme helps equips students with the skills to navigate change and disruptions—these are skills beyond knowledge such as being able to function in team settings, being an effective communicator, being able to lead when necessary.”

Many of these skills can only be developed through real world, relevant projects—and that’s why SMU is adapting its graduate and undergraduate programmes to make them more practice oriented, “We find that the key to postgraduate education is to go beyond the simple concepts of exposure and comprehension, and move toward integration, synthesis and the ability to create new knowledge. Learning through a mix of case studies, project-based assignments, consultative experiences and internships, our students become both problem-spotters and problem-solvers. ”

In the face of so much uncertainty, it may be tempting to adopt a wait-and-see approach to one’s career. But the unprecedented pace of change, brought about by advances in technology, means that one runs the very real risk of being left behind. It seems pro-activity, and a readiness to embrace the idea of life-long-learning in the form of a ‘personal curriculum’, where employment and continuous training go hand-in-hand, will likely prove a far more effective and rewarding strategy.

SMU President, Professor Arnoud De Meyer shares his outlook on ‘Future Jobs’ with Channel NewsAsia ‘Future Forward’ host Asha Gill.