Mid-career and middle-aged workers’ woes: is training the solution?

Academic Views / Monday, March 16th, 2020

Arthur Chia, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Work and Learning, Research and Innovation Division of the Institute for Adult Learning, Singapore University of Social Sciences, argues that it is necessary to move beyond supply-side solutions such as retraining to address the employment difficulties faced by mid-career and middle-aged workers.

Mid-career and middle-aged workers are most significantly impacted by technological disruption, economic restructuring and business transformation. Workers are told that they are “too old”, “too expensive”, and/or “irrelevant” for the new digital economy. However, it may only be partly correct to suggest that workers lack the necessary skills or talent, and that their concerns could be resolved by training and/or retraining, skills acquisition, and enhancing access or opportunities to training.  Retraining, skills acquisition and upgrading are a supply-side response which assumes that improving or increasing the stock of skills through training, education etc. will lead to improved business performance, and enhance employment outcomes for workers. It presumes that there is a clear and direct link between training pathways, business performance, and employment outcomes.

I argue that a more comprehensive response to help older workers (and probably all workers in the long run) lie beyond the discourse of a lack of skills and its attending supply-side “solution”. This discourse draws attention away from issues of ageism, poor work practices and working conditions, and it shows an incomplete understanding of how work and people are organised and valued. Instead, we should highlight and actively debate a wider range of questions about value creation: how skills and other resources are activated to produce goods and services, what their value(s) represent, and the kind of social justice issues involved including differentials in power, priorities, and interests.

Beyond skills acquisition and training: utilisation of skills, work practices and non-material values

Value is created when economies and organisations make better use of current skills, and/or prevent the waste or erosion of skills. The utilisation of skills is as important as the provisioning of training and skills development for workers (Sakamoto and Sung, 2018). Labour economists argue that skills are mediated by the context and conditions of work, which could be understood in terms of business models, the competitive environment and job quality, and their varied and complex connections (Sung, 2018).

Corporate employment practices shape how value is recognised. For example, consider the ways employers define and identify “talent”. In a comparative study of Singapore’s competitive labour market, economists highlighted how the “corporate structuring of opportunities for Singaporeans in a ‘War for Talent’ corporate landscape” (Brown et al, 2019) is connected to the perceived lack of talent or low value of Singaporean talent at higher levels of the labour market.

Economies and organisations create and are sustained by non-material values. The historian Loh Kah Seng notes that from the 1960s to the 1980s, as Singapore experienced export-led industrialisation through multinational corporations, it was not just technical skills development but industrial values of “discipline, punctuality and pride” that activated production and performance (Loh & Nguyen, 2019, p.10). These values are reflected in the work ethos of many mid-career and middle-age workers, laying the foundations for industrial labour relations that have contributed to a business friendly environment and shaped the nation’s economic growth in subsequent decades.

Driving business and industry transformation: trade associations and chambers, and the labour movement

An infographic on the NTUC website, explaining the intended benefits of Company Training Committees (Source: NTUC Learning Hub)

Value creation through improving work practices, skills utilisation, and skills development are also enabled by increasing collaborations between government agencies, Trade Agencies and Chambers (TACs), corporations, unions, and educational institutions. The tie-ups between Singapore Business Federation (SBF), Workforce Singapore (WSG), IMDA, and NUS to offer training courses for workers at all ranks to support companies’ transformation process, improve corporate HR practices, and re-design jobs (Zaqy 2019), greatly enhance the role of TACs and educational institutions in industrial transformation and actions.

Company Training Committees[1] (CTCs) led by the Labour Movement (NTUC) also play an important role in value creation and social justice. CTCs aim to help companies transform their business through greater workers’ engagement and skills development initiatives. The CTC arrangement compels employers to work more closely with their workers and recognise workers’ capabilities as creative and productive persons, as well as their capacity to flourish at work.

All these collaborations build on and sustain current industrial relations. They offer real opportunities to shift the balance of power in workplaces, and reverse the corporate race-to-the-bottom scenario that impacts mid-career and middle-aged workers the hardest. The collaborative framework and process to seek genuine participation and advice from workers, educators, and local businesses is key.


Reporting and discussion on skills development need to be framed beyond the skills lack discourse that privileges a supply-side approach. In skills development, one must consider not only what skills are required, but also how they are materialised in workplaces, and their value-creating propensity over time.

Seafood trading is one area in which a collaborative approach between government agencies and industry bodies has been taken. (Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

For example, local ICT company VCargo Cloud (VCC) has collaborated with IMDA, Enterprise Singapore, and Singapore Food Agency to identify the interests and tap on the advice of Punggol Fish Merchants Association, Seafood Industries Association Singapore, and Singapore Fish Merchants’ General Association in developing SeafoodXchange – Singapore’s first B2B digital market place for seafood traders. This local initiative aims to improve productivity and market potential for seafood traders that relies on and creates value in sustaining the community of seafood traders and hawkers, and enhancing the trade itself.

A holistic approach which attends to issues of value creation and social justice may lead to re-thinking about the sort of companies that could create value based not merely on the size of their investments which are not necessarily linked to local trade, commercial and/or professional communities, and paying attention to the established or potential skillsets of the Singaporean workforce, the role of employers in skills development, and more effective skills utilisation through job re-design, greater workers’ engagement, and improving job quality. It also encourages policy-makers to work across policy domains to consider a combination of industrial and organisational transformation action alongside welfare strategies like income and job protection (see for example Green, 2016).

Here, public debates about mid-career and middle-aged workers could perhaps be enriched with a better understanding of mobility of skills and job security in relation to economic vulnerability, job quality vis-à-vis productivity, industrial history and heritage and their connections to the evolving roles of trade associations and chambers and the labour movement, and more critical conversations about economic transformation, organisational practices, and skills development.


P. Brown, H. Lauder, Sahara, J. Sung, S. Freebody, “Talent and the Structuring of Opportunity: Explaining Singapore’s Talent Deficit”, Research Note (Institute for Adult Learning, 2019)

A. Green,Low skill traps in sectors and geographies: underlying factors and means of escape (Government Office for Science, 2016)

Loh, K.S. & Nguyen, L.L.L. “Memories of Rollei Singapore”, Berita Newsletter, Association for Asian Studies, Winter Issue 2018/2019: 6-15 (2019)

A. Sakamoto & J. Sung (eds.), Skills and the future of work strategies for inclusive growth in Asia and the Pacific (International Labour Organisation, 2018)

J. Sung, “Business model, skills intensity and job quality for inclusive society” in A. Sakamoto & J. Sung (eds.) Skills and the future of work strategies for inclusive growth in Asia and the Pacific, pp. 24-40 (International Labour Organisation, 2018)

Zaqy Mohammad, Speech at Future Economy Conference and Exhibition 2019 by Minister of State for Manpower (Ministry of Manpower, 2019)

[1] “The CTC construct comprises key management from the company, as well as union representatives and workers within the company coming together to chart out competency requirements for all workers, be they rank-and-file workers or PMEs, and design a structured training roadmap that is tailored to meet specific workers’ needs… NTUC aims to establish 1,000 CTCs across different subsectors of our economy” (Singapore: Speech by SMS Koh Poh Koon at the Official Launch of Fong’s Engineering and Manufacturing Pte Smart Factory Journey. 16 Jul 2019. MTI).

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