Some time soon, the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) will mark a major milestone as the millionth worker in Singapore gets trained under its flagship Workforce Skills Qualification (WSQ) programme.
Since 2005, the programme has been helping to train, assess and certify individuals in key skills essential for success in close to 30 industries.
Targeted largely at rank-and-file workers, these courses are funded up to 95 per cent by the Government, which announced in 2010 that it would spend $2.5 billion on continuing education and training over five years.
Numbers released by WDA to The Sunday Times show that in an era of uncertain jobs and stagnating pay, skills upgrading has indeed become the new workforce mantra.
In 2005, the first year of the programme, 21,000 workers attended WSQ training courses over the entire year. By last September, roughly 22,000 workers were being trained every month.
Training headcount did, however, fall in 2011, compared with the previous year, but that coincided with the end of a state-funded $650 million incentive scheme known as the Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience, or Spur.
The two-year programme was introduced in late 2008 by the Government to help companies use the economic slowdown to train workers rather than lay them off.
However, by September last year, the average numbers trained each month were on the upswing again.
Continuous training, WDA's chief executive Wong Hong Kuan told The Sunday Times, helps workers stay relevant amid a fast-changing business landscape and increases productivity.
Interviews with companies, trainers and workers bear this out. Companies such as Pacific Bookstores, which operates bookshops in schools, say they have seen quick and quantifiable benefits.
After receiving a rising number of customer-service-related complaints, the company sent nearly all its 170-plus workers on service excellence courses under WSQ last year.
General manager Loo Ee Fah said the move has already paid off with customer complaints falling by around 30 per cent within a year.
The courses taught workers skills that were especially relevant to their jobs. For instance, rather than simply tell a customer a book was out of stock, as they would before training, staff now offer to contact customers personally when stocks arrive. "It's a small thing, but it leads to happy customers," said Mr Loo.
The company also did "mystery shopper audits" - where people posed as customers to test the level of service. The results showed a "very significant increase in service standards".
For the TungLok Group, which operates a chain of restaurants here and overseas, the WSQ is a powerful tool to help develop and maintain a workforce equipped specifically for the food and beverage industry, said the group's senior vice-president for human resources and training, Ms Sherine Toh.
"To us, it's like a national qualification like the GCE O levels," she said. This is especially important as many low-level food and beverage workers do not have strong academic credentials. The high turnover in the industry also makes it important to have a stock of readily available courses for newcomers to quickly learn the ropes.
"Once workers complete WSQ training, you know they will have a minimum standard of service that is directly relevant to their work," she said.
The courses can be just as useful for workers looking to refresh their skills. After taking a six-month break from work, administrative assistant Rosalin Kolandasamy, 57, took a week-long customer service course in 2011. "It made me realise that my skills were still marketable in the current economy, which was important for an older worker like me to know," she said. She now works in a company that owns a spa.
Outcome evaluation surveys conducted by WDA every year lend credence to such views.
Around 90 per cent of the 12,500 WSQ trainees interviewed by WDA in 2011 said the courses helped improve their work performance. Of the 2,200 companies interviewed, 70 per cent said the courses helped improve labour productivity, up five points from the previous year.
While such regular surveys are useful, they are not the only way to gauge whether the money spent on training is yielding rich returns, say experts such as Ms Jane Massy.
That is because they are largely opinions or estimates which may not be backed by facts.
This is especially so in cases where the training is being funded by a third party - like the Government - as companies and trainees have little to lose by reporting rosy results, said the Briton who advises organisations in 10 countries, including Singapore, on how to get more bang for the bucks spent on training.
It may be a better idea to collect and evaluate quantifiable outcomes of training in addition to survey data, she said.
Before sending trainees on any course, companies must identify key measurable goals or outcomes that the course must achieve. "They must answer the question, What will the course help me improve?"
For someone attending a sales course, it could be to enable him to sell more products; for someone flipping burgers, it could be to flip more burgers in the same time, and so forth. "Such data is not hard to gather and most companies already have it," said Ms Massy, who is working with WDA and the Institute of Adult Learning on ways to better measure the benefits of training.
"If the Government sponsors training, it would be quite legitimate for it to ask for such information."
Mr Mathew Linus, a lecturer on human resource issues at the National University of Singapore Business School, says training courses can also be competitively compared across various training agencies to see which produces better results.
Currently, there are more than 400 approved training organisations providing WSQ and other courses and there is little publicly available data on how effective their courses are.
Mr Jim Then, a freelance career coach who counsels mature workers and trains managers on how to handle them better, said WSQ courses have helped Singaporeans work "smarter and faster". However, many workers he counsels feel unhappy that working faster does not always lead to promotions or pay hikes.
Indeed, in the WDA's 2011 survey, only 17 per cent of workers said they got a pay rise after attending WSQ courses, down from 25 per cent the previous year. And only about 12 per cent were promoted.
Experts on training say that no course in the world can guarantee a pay rise or a promotion as other factors, such as a worker's attitude, ability and length of service, can affect pay and perks. These also depend on how a company and the economy perform.
But for low-wage workers in particular, that is not always easy to accept. "Ultimately they all want to use training to work smarter and faster because they want to earn more money," said Mr Then. "And when that does not happen, it hurts."
The Government's recent moves to tighten the foreign worker tap, he hopes, will help push up the pay of trained workers. "Employment rates of Singaporeans have already improved. I hope pay will soon follow suit."