EDUCATION Minister Heng Swee Keat made plain yesterday that recommendations by the Aspire committee to improve ITE and polytechnic vocational education were not meant to dissuade Singaporeans from upgrading themselves - or from pursuing degrees or any other qualifications.

The goal is to create opportunities for all, and not to create more competition for some, he said. But he stressed that qualifications sought ought to be of the right kind for the job a person wants.

Likewise, employers and the industry should also make it known to those looking to enter the workforce just what it is that they are looking for in employees.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, when he joined the debate on the Aspire committee's report, he acknowledged that qualifications were a proxy measure for some competencies and attributes, "but cannot represent the full package of attributes each of us brings to the table".

He noted that several MPs said members of the public had - in the light of the committee's report - asked if the Government was now saying qualifications do not matter, and, if so, why it was urging people to upgrade.

The Aspire committee's recommendations, he said, were about "keeping pathways open for all, not blocking pathways for some".

"Qualifications matter but they must be the right qualifications and of the right standard for what we want to do. We want our doctor, our nurse, our pharmacist, our physiotherapist to each have the right qualification for the job they do," he said.

"The right qualification signifies that you have the right skills, the right combination of knowledge, application and experience.

"But not all qualifications matter. Not if they do not help us build the right skills for what we want to do," he said. "And this can happen when we seek qualifications as a paper chase rather than as a quest for skills."

He cited the case of a resident at his Meet-the-People Session recently. The diploma holder went directly to do a private degree programme, believing she could get a better job and earn a better pay.

"But after spending tens of thousands of dollars on the programme, she got a job that paid her at a fresh diploma holder's level - about $2,000 - because the company did not find her degree skills relevant. She lost three years of salary had she gone on to work. So (an) opportunity cost of over $70,000 plus the cost of doing this programme," he said.

"What's worse, she realised after all this, that this line of work does not suit her strengths and interest. She was so caught up in chasing the piece of paper and lost the chance to discover what she really cared about."

Her story moved him because her family is not well off, and the experience was a cost for them.

"I feel strongly that we must provide better career and education guidance to our young people. And our captains of industry must come out and explain what they are looking for."