Boost productivity, but remember the people left behind

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When I heard of the recent government initiative to encourage customers to return their trays at hawker centres to reduce manpower and boost productivity, I was extremely excited. Singapore’s economy fares quite poorly relative to other developed nations in terms of productivity due to an over-reliance on manual, low-skilled labour, and the fact that we have been slow to embrace new technologies. Hence, such efforts to boost productivity, in my opinion, are well overdue.

However, a recent experience made me reconsider my sheer enthusiasm.

Yesterday, I had lunch at Newton Hawker Centre. Having finished my meal, I proceeded to stack my cutlery and lift the tray from the table with the intention of proceeding to the nearest tray return point.

At this moment, an old uncle in a cleaner’s outfit rushed over. He said in a tense voice,  “放下,放下,让我来” (put it down, let me do it) while reaching out his palm, and gesturing in a downward motion, signalling me to put the tray down.

There is a possibility that he was simply being kind, and felt that since it was his job to clear trays, I, as the customer, should not have to return the tray myself. However, I cannot help but think that there may be something else at stake here: the fact that if we actually start cultivating a habit of returning our own trays, this old uncle may be out of a job.

Indeed, such a habit would boost productivity, since the hawker centre ecosystem will continue to function and produce the same output despite employing fewer people. The old cleaner uncle would then become ‘freed-up’ labour – he can go on to do some other job and value-add to the economy, leading to an overall increase in national output: win-win right? Except that it is not always easy for people to find new jobs, especially when they are old, and particularly if they are not well-skilled. These two frequently converge because today’s elderly folk grew up at a different time in Singapore’s development, where education and upgrading opportunities were more scarce than they are now.

This is the central dilemma of any attempt to improve productivity – those made redundant by changes in technology or supply chain reform (as is the case here) may not have the morale, incentive or ability to learn new skills in order to find alternative employment. This might lead to a rise in unemployment, which may, in turn, lead to economic hardship.

Furthermore, if people who are freed-up’ labour (i.e. unemployed) do not find meaningful employment, even though statistically there is an increase in productivity given that we get the same output with fewer workers, the additional expenditure of supporting those left behind will make the economy worse-off as a whole.

The government is probably aware of this and it is good to know that it has introduced initiatives to help Singaporeans upgrade themselves in order to keep up with changes in technology and be more productive. This includes, for example, the SkillsFuture program, and the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) scheme. The former grants all Singaporeans a $500 credit which they can spend on upgrading themselves, and the latter involves training, developing, assessing and recognising individuals for the skills that companies are looking for. Both are great initiatives, but more can be done.

For example, SkillsFuture provides an equal level of credit across all age groups above the age of 25. This is perhaps not ideal. The older a person is, the greater the reluctance a person might have to learn new skills; yet, it is older people who are more likely to find it difficult to find re-employment and adapt to new technologies and therefore need the upgrading the most. Hence, it may be prudent for the government to consider granting a higher level of credit to individuals who are older, and perhaps even more to older individuals who have a lower level of education and technical expertise, in order to ensure that society’s most vulnerable people have the greatest opportunity and incentive to upgrade themselves.

Additionally, government initiatives aside, we need to develop a culture that promotes learning and re-training, even among older folk. This includes being patient with elderly people who are attempting to embrace new technologies and manage our expectations when dealing with them. This also means being more encouraging whenever we hear about the elderly learning new things, and constantly reminding them that they are important to our society, instead of allowing them to feel like they are a burden to us. We must not underestimate the importance of morale to people’s willingness to step out of their comfort zone and attempt something new, especially when they are approaching their golden years.

In summary, it is important that we boost productivity to ensure that our economy remains viable in a competitive and rapidly changing world. However, we ought not to forget that increasing productivity comes at a cost, and we must, as a society, be willing to allocate adequate resources to help those who are left behind. I therefore hope that there will be more resources allocated for this purpose in this year’s budget and that as a society, we will be more accommodating to those ‘left behind’.

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Written by Rio Hoe

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