LATE last year, when the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) announced the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) 2012 test, Singapore students were ranked among the best in the world, ranking second in mathematics and third in science.
For many parents with children going through the Singapore education system, the Pisa test results did not come as a surprise. The emphasis on mathematics, science and literacy in Singapore schools is well known and is a source of much pride.
With Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Stem)-related industries having contributed more than 75 per cent to GDP over the last two decades, it could also be said that the foundation for Singapore's success today is built on the Stem emphasis in education.
Technology is pervasive in almost every aspect of our daily lives, and as the workplace changes, Stem knowledge and skills grow in importance for a variety of workers, not just for mathematicians and scientists. Almost every organisation relies on people with Stem qualifications - including technological skills to run their IT systems and maths skills to manage their accounts.
Look into any industry and you will find a need for people with Stem skills, even those industries which may not seem to have a need for people equipped with science or engineering skills.
For example, the entertainment industry needs people with Stem skills to design video games, create special effects for films, and be sound engineers. In sports, skilled people are needed to develop high performance sports equipment and to conduct physiotherapy for athletes.
Singapore's aerospace industry employed over 19,900 in 2012, of whom 90 per cent are skilled in Stem-related fields.
With a business-friendly environment and an extensive talent pool, Singapore is also home to some of the world's most innovative companies that develop cutting edge products and ideas.
The public and private sectors recognise that significant investment in high-tech research and development (R&D) is vital to success. R&D creates the technologies of the future and generates the intellectual property that enables the country and the businesses in it to sustain their competitive advantage in the global economy.
The Singapore government is committed to driving a transformation to a knowledge-intensive, innovation-driven economy and has committed S$16.1 billion or one per cent of GDP over five years from 2011-2015 into R&D. This represents a 20 per cent increase over 2006-2010.
As these industries grow, the big challenge is to ensure a steady supply of skilled manpower. And as most business leaders would attest, individuals who can fill Stem jobs remain in high demand and they can expect excellent employment opportunities throughout their careers.
Yet, we're seeing a growing gap between the supply of Stem graduates and the number of jobs that require degree holders from Stem-related fields.
According to the Yearbook of Statistics Singapore, 50 per cent of graduates from local universities were in Stem courses in 2006. In 2012, that figure dropped to 42 per cent, while the number of non-Stem graduates increased by almost 10 per cent in the same period.
Around the world, 80 per cent of all new jobs created will be Stem-related. There will be a significant growth in new jobs and massive replacement demand, and economically valuable skills will be most valuable (intermediate and higher Stem skills).
The government has acknowledged this worrying trend, and according to Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, "Singapore needs a significant percentage of students to take on rigorous Stem subjects".
The view that students are becoming less interested in pursuing Stem degrees because of a perceived lack of jobs doesn't hold true. Stem jobs are growing much faster than other job categories, and the supply of Stem workers is unlikely to outstrip demand.
Since 2004, Stem jobs grew three times faster than non-Stem jobs globally. Over the next four years, Stem jobs are expected to grow twice as fast. Growth in demand for core Stem competencies - the knowledge, skills and abilities commonly associated with Stem workers - is especially strong in professional and business services jobs, and in healthcare services.
Meanwhile, in industries such as advanced manufacturing, mining, utilities and transportation, technology advancements may be reducing overall employment, but they are simultaneously increasing the demand for Stem competencies among the more highly skilled workers in those industries. The Economic Development Board estimates that between 14,000 and 16,000 new skilled jobs will be created in Singapore in 2014 alone.
It is also unlikely that the perception of Stem-related jobs not paying well is behind the decline in Stem graduates. Stem occupations are high paying, with wages significantly above the average graduate's. The top 10 highest-paying majors for bachelor's degree holders are from Stem-related fields.
The Singapore government recognises Stem education as a national priority and is increasing its efforts to ensure the workforce of the future is equipped with the skills and training to maintain the country's economic growth. However, these efforts will not succeed without the support and action from the private sector.
It is heartening to know that since 2010, global companies such as P&G, Sinopec, Seagate, Infineon, AbbVie, and others have invested over S$4 billion to establish manufacturing and R&D facilities in Singapore, creating more job opportunities that all require some level of Stem knowledge and skills.
There are several ways in which local and multinational companies can help to bridge the gap between the support and the demand for Stem-skilled labour, without having to make a significant investment.
Companies can focus on Stem education as a cause for employees to rally around, and encourage employees to become Stem ambassadors within their communities. Businesses can also sponsor Stem-related clubs in schools, organise workplace visits and create work experience opportunities for teachers and students.
At Rolls-Royce, we are working with local institutions to develop skills and training programmes relevant to the advancement of Stem-related careers in the private sector. We are also committed to long-term training and development collaborations with local institutions, including internships and attachment opportunities for students pursuing Stem-related degrees.
By investing in Stem education, we hope to widen the talent pool from which we - and our customers and suppliers - will recruit in the future. This will ensure that we have the best people with the right skills to fulfil our future responsibilities and secure Singapore's economic leadership.
The writer is senior country manager of Rolls-Royce Singapore