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Commentary: No worker is untrainable. Employers have to step up to help

The words 'upskill' and 'retrain' accompany almost every report on jobs. PeopleSearch’s Jaime Lim weighs in on how companies can work with employees who find it a struggle.

Commentary: No worker is untrainable. Employers have to step up to help

Office workers wearing face masks enter a building during lunch time in the financial business district in Singapore on Aug 11, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

SINGAPORE: As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to batter the economy, the threat to jobs remains formidable. According to the Ministry of Manpower, retrenchments in the second quarter more than doubled to 8,130 from the first quarter figure of 3,220.

Global economic uncertainties are likely to continue weighing down the labour market for the rest of the year.

As displaced workers struggle to take their next steps, the Government has been substantially boosting its training support programmes.

Recently, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced a six-month extension of the Enhanced Training Support Package to provide higher course fee subsidies for firms in the hardest-hit sectors such as air transport, retail and tourism. The marine and offshore sectors were also added to the list.

Experts agree that continual upskilling and reskilling are imperative as the economy undergoes structural changes precipitated by the crisis.

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In fact, the narrative of “upskilling and reskilling is crucial to survival and long-term employability” is not new, given that the job market has been hit by multiple economic crises over the years.

The cliché, “gone are the days when you can count on a job for life” has also permeated most labour-related discussions.

In this context, employers often speak about a group of workers who find it more challenging  than others to get on board – the people who are “set in their ways”, don’t seem to see the value of keeping up and might even be “untrainable.”

Each crisis seems to uncover more such individuals who could end up being unemployable long after the crisis is over.

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I believe no worker is “untrainable.” It all boils down to identifying the cause of their resistance to training.

For instance, professional trainers would tell you that a fear of learning new things can be addressed once learners' focus is shifted from challenges to benefits.

A job seeker I met recently exemplifies this. After having worked in the human resources sector for almost 15 years, he was slow to update his skills despite the evolving role of HR practitioners.

But a conversation with his supervisor shifted his thinking. She spoke about how HR can have a direct impact on performance and profit of the company and how the lives of staff – including his own – can be improved by way of job satisfaction, career progression and remuneration if he updated his skills.

More than 35 companies have committed to sending their workers for the SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace training within the next year. (Photo: Rachelle Lee)

Since then, he has taken greater initiative in his own learning journey.

This shows that how training is framed and conducted can determine how well a worker learns, but the choice to be unreceptive to training or “untrainable” can also be partly attributed to the way organisations have managed workers over the years.


Among the candidates I meet, most quickly realise that reskilling and upskilling are intertwined with survival.

However, if organisations don’t encourage and facilitate continual reskilling, upskilling and cross-skilling, a substantial number of workers could sink into comfort zones, only to panic when their roles became obsolete.

Having become conditioned to stagnation, these workers have a harder time in the long term. The Singapore Business Federation’s National Business Survey released in 2019 showed that only 12 per cent of employers invested in better training for their staff in 2018.

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But the same survey revealed that finding workers with the relevant technology expertise was a concern for 41 per cent of companies, and 29 per cent were worried about retraining their employees in digital capabilities.

This is not unique to Singapore. According to PwC’s 2019 Talent Trends Report: Upskilling for a Digital World, 79 per cent of global CEOs said they were "extremely" or "somewhat" concerned about the lack of essential skills among their employees.

Since businesses seem to be acutely aware of how skills shortages can affect them, they should make talent development a priority.


For companies, investing in employees’ training and development is a matter of self-interest. Skills shortages don’t serve anyone.

A lack of training not only hampers an organisation’s ability to meet business goals, it hurts its ability to attract and retain talent.

A 2019 LinkedIn survey showed than more than 40 per cent of employees in Singapore have left an employer because they felt that it did not provide enough learning and development opportunities.

(Photo: Unsplash/Annie Spratt)

Generally, training your existing workers is more beneficial than getting trapped in a cycle of firing and hiring. The Society for Human Resource Management states that it could cost about 50 per cent of an employee’s annual salary to find a direct replacement.

Training should therefore be seen as an integral part of business strategy.


A lack of time is often cited as a barrier to learning and development, but the cost of having employees who lack the skills to enable your business to thrive is clearly much higher than the cost of giving your employees learning breaks.  

Instead of using time constraints as a reason to allow employees to stagnate, companies need to come up with more effective ways of managing workplace learning.

One way of doing this is to place employees in job roles that require them to stretch beyond their current abilities. This doesn’t require setting aside large chunks of time for training, but must be augmented with coaching and mentoring by managers on a day-to-day basis.

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Organisations such as Google encourage the acquisition of such “multi-functional” experiences that involve cross-skilling. This enables employees to be ready for unexpected business and organisational changes in crisis situations.

FILE PHOTO: An employee answers phone calls at the switchboard of the Google office in Zurich, August 18, 2009. This logo has been updated and is no longer in use. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Segmenting training programmes into manageable modules has also been known to increase the adoption of lifelong learning. Many organisations have been creating bite-sized modules that constitute both classroom training and virtual learning.

Each module might take about 30 minutes to an hour to complete. Today, as virtual training becomes more common, learning should become even more efficient.

With many free and affordable online courses available, more employees are also taking the initiative to engage in informal online learning after hours.

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Senior management should lead by example by undergoing training and self-improvement themselves and sharing their learning experiences with staff.

As the learning outcomes begin to show in the way they work and manage staff, the merits of upskilling and reskilling will inevitably become apparent to everyone else.

Importantly, supervisors must invest time in having career conversations with employees. These conversations should delve into the company’s strategic business plans and what skills would be needed to propel these.

To ensure a sense of ownership, direct reports should also have a say in what they skills they would like to improve or acquire in order to do their job better.

Office professionals at work. (File photo: Unsplash/Mimi Thian)

In an increasingly uncertain world, HR personnel too must play a more strategic role by communicating the importance of in-demand skills and accordingly, facilitate cross-skilling, upskilling and reskilling and get employers to invest in programmes, even those not supported by government schemes.


In my conversations with job seekers, I’ve noticed that attitudes to lifelong learning are highly influenced by past education and learning experiences.

Those who have experienced learning as satisfying and empowering, rather than as something chiefly centred on utility and survival tend to have an easier time keeping the momentum going. 

Another key factor is having a sense of curiosity. In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, author of Growing Great Employees, Erika Andersen says:

Curiosity is what makes us try something until we can do it, or think about something until we understand it.

Great learners retain this childhood drive and instead of focusing on how hard or uninteresting a subject is, they ask “curious questions”. But this interest in acquiring new knowledge starts at home and in schools.

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Learning chiefly for the sake of attaining stellar results or a stable career serves to strengthen the belief that you should only pick up new skills when your survival is threatened.

To engender an environment where every worker instinctively takes steps to continually improve, individuals, schools and businesses must work in concert. Making value judgements about workers, classifying some as “untrainable” doesn’t serve anyone.

It truly takes a village to ensure that none of us are left floundering in what is set to be a prolonged period of uncertainty and turbulence.

Jaime Lim is Group Business Leader of PeopleSearch, an executive search firm with a presence in six cities including Singapore.


Source: CNA/cr