Employability, Growth and Resilience through Workplace Learning

Across industries, jobs and workplaces are changing to adapt to a new normal of disrupted paradigms and ever-changing needs. Workplace Learning (WpL) helps employees and employers establish a common purpose and acquire relevant skills, in order to stay competitive and employable.

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A Key Paradigm Shift

The term Workplace Learning has become a buzzword in recent times, but it is actually part of a fundamental paradigm shift for the nation that has been carefully considered and planned. In 2013, the Ministry of Manpower established the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) to address the employment challenges of mismatched skills vis-à-vis job opportunities in Singapore.

WDA invested in training programmes to support workforce employability and build professional expertise in curriculum development for adult learning and skills certification.

In 2017, the Committee on the Future Economy highlighted that our workers need to continuously deepen and refresh skills,1 given the growing prevalence of automation and transformation. Instead of relying solely on knowledge gained through the formal education system, the Committee recognised that each individual would have to reinvent themselves and learn anew throughout their lives. This was a powerful mindset shift: it also meant that employers would need to actively invest in and help their employees gain relevant skills on an ongoing basis, with the workplace becoming a legitimate classroom where one learns.

As part of this national thrust towards lifelong learning, the Ministry of Trade and Industry led the rollout of what are called Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) for 23 industries—charting the long-term vision and direction in the years ahead for these sectors. SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG)—a statutory board under the Ministry of Education that drives and coordinates the implementation of the national SkillsFuture movement—complemented this with the Skills Framework, for which various lead agencies, employers, industry associations and unions furnish information on sector, career pathways, job roles, skills and training programmes. These two elements have become roadmaps for organisations and employees to chart a course in cultivating the most relevant competencies for their upgrading and mastery.

Putting Workplace Learning (WpL) into Industrial Practice

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Workplace Learning (WpL) Defined

The International Labour Organization defines Workplace Learning as “the acquisition of knowledge or skills by formal or informal means that occurs in the workplace”. This is in contrast with knowledge or skills acquisition outside the workplace, such as in classrooms. WpL includes both formal on-the-job training and informal learning at work.2

In essence: WpL is a structured and professional system to help employees gain—in the parlance—Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes (KSA) effectively, and to support employers in retaining knowledge within the organisation.

All too often, in our experience working with organisations, we see firms struggle because employees are training in competencies that are irrelevant to current needs. Sometimes, even if the training is appropriate and for relevant skills, it can be a challenge to get employees to put it into practice at work. Furthermore, without the proper documentation of how the job is done, the loss of a key colleague can mean a loss of institutional knowledge and key skills. To restart the building of these skills can require significant time and resources—a cost most organisations can ill afford.

WpL is both an administrative structure, where there are specific documents charting the expected competencies of each employee and their training development pathways, as well as a system of formal and informal training methods such as the following:

On-the-Job Training (OJT) is a form of learning in the work environment during the employment period. It is usually carried out in a structured manner with the support of subject matter experts (also known as coaches). OJT is probably the most common WpL practice in Singapore, but organisations often implement it in an ad hoc manner. In 2019, NACE harmonised the OJT Blueprint template with assessment rubrics used in Work-Study Programmes (WSPs) offered by local polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). The OJT Blueprint is a document that codifies the tacit knowledge and tasks for a job role, with required KSA and relevant guidelines for learning at the workplace. As a result, other polytechnics and ITE have since adopted NYP’s OJT Blueprint and assessment rubrics.

Apprenticeships are competency-based learning stints with companies, usually at the company's premises. Apprentices are employed full-time to acquire the competencies to perform at a higher level or with an expanded job scope. It is more prevalent in European Union countries, where WpL culture is deeply rooted in the workforce, and usually leads to formal or professional qualifications. In Singapore, we have WSPs offered by Institutes of Higher Learning using OJT blueprints as part of the structured WpL mechanism to promote a culture of learning.

Internships/Traineeships are short-term WpL arrangements where interns or trainees learn on the job, both formally and informally.

Typically, each learner receives an allowance during their internship, and learning is structured at the workplace.

Firms struggle because employees are training in competencies that are irrelevant to current needs...even if the training is appropriate and for relevant skills, it can be a challenge to get employees to put it into practice at work.

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An MOU to harmonise OJT practices across Institutes of Higher Learning was signed on 12 July 2019 by representatives of the five polytechnics and ITE.

A Positive Sea Change

Hearteningly, data suggests that workers in Singapore have embraced the idea of lifelong learning.

A Straits Times article in 2019 highlights how receiving sufficient training to perform their jobs effectively is a key factor towards enhanced job satisfaction, an increased desire to go to work, and higher staff retention rates for the Singapore workforce.3

Several other key polls and reports also echo this. For example, according to a poll by hiring consultancy Randstad in 2020, 86% of respondents in Singapore are motivated to upskill and reskill, to prepare for industrial changes resulting from automation and digitalisation.4 Another report by Ernst & Young, based on a survey of over 4,000 employers and employees in June and July 2020, indicates that 84% of employees identify the adoption of digital tools as critical for the future of work.5 The same report shows that employees rank virtual learning, alongside health and safety in the workplace, as their top development focus.

Staff want organisations to invest in their development and provide a safe and nurturing environment for them to succeed and thrive—especially at a time of uncertainty and rapid change.

As job responsibilities enlarge and shift, the need to bridge the gap between learning new skills and applying knowledge at the workplace becomes more critical than before. WpL empowers workers because it allows employees to identify their weaknesses, gaps, inconsistencies, and dissatisfaction both within their current job scope and in relation to future demands.

Staff who seek to grow with an organisation should expect well-structured and transparent WpL systems that allow contextualisation, flexibility, and authentic learning to enable optimal performance.

I recently spoke to a Mr Tan, an employee whose company has worked with NACE to implement the WpL system referencing the National Workplace Learning Framework. It was a short conversation on the sidelines of a discussion—but you could see how he was encouraged by the fact that his organisation had chosen to invest in its workers. He knew that the work was meaningful and felt that it would make employees, like himself, feel confident of a caring and progressive organisation.

Employers are certainly getting the memo about skills being the currency of the future: PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 24th Annual Global CEO Survey6 has found that while most leaders believe the need for new skills is their biggest challenge in a rapidly changing workplace environment, however, the crucial next step is for employers to take great ownership of WpL.

Nurturing Our Catalysts: A National Workplace Learning Framework

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Staff want organisations to invest in their development and provide a safe and nurturing environment for them to succeed and thrive—especially at a time of uncertainty and rapid change.

The Role of Leaders in the Next Mile

In a 2020 symposium on shaping the future of education, then-Minister for Education Lawrence Wong called on employers to re-examine how they use workplaces for learning.

He explained how, while many learn by doing—through the "process of trial and error", "feedback and tips from colleagues, or just by watching how other people do it"—such learning was often ad hoc.7 Mr Wong called for organisations to create a systematic, structured and deliberately well-thought-out process for their workers’ learning to be effective.8

Indeed, some leaders have cottoned on to how the strategic effort to provide their employees with the time and space for WpL will go a long way in cementing their employees’ motivation, professional growth, and loyalty, and in readying their organisations for the future.

Despite the successes of firms who have adopted WpL, many other business leaders remain concerned with the here-and-now. Some of their reservations stem from their beliefs about the time, commitment and resources needed for WpL, while balancing existing business operations. Some are concerned about a lack of coaches/mentors to support WpL implementation. Hence, they continue to expend their resources on coping with immediate uncertainties. But this approach does not bring long-term strength, stability, or growth.

There are ways to ease the transition into WpL adoption. Funding and bespoke consultancy support are available to kick-start the WpL process. And firms can take incremental steps. A start is better than no start, and there are tangible benefits to be had. For organisations ready to deep dive into WpL, certification allows validation of processes and affirmation of successes.

Amid volatility and uncertainty, the role of a leader in building an equitable and innovative workplace becomes more critical than ever. Leaders need to re-examine their leadership strategies and consider how they can create a continuous learning culture. This includes engaging with the ground, being inclusive, and kindling the dynamism that grows the confidence and capabilities of their people.

Although the journey might seem daunting, the experience and outcome will be rewarding. NACE will also walk the journey with employers to help them gain strategic competitive advantage through WpL.

Boosting Organisational Performance through WpL

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The WpL Journey Continues

The journey of WpL is organic and collaborative. Employers play a pivotal role in taking stock of skills predisposition, humanising workflow, and reimagining WpL as a process of continuous learning. When they find value in each person in their workforce, and re-design jobs to be better adapted to the vagaries of our modern world, they can unlock tacit knowledge and benefit from a motivated workforce who can excel and bring growth.

In return, employees will also benefit from seeing what their learning maps to, understanding the context of changes and most importantly finding trust in organisations which are investing in their futures.

It is a mutually reinforcing virtuous cycle, to which everyone contributes, for the gain of all.

One of the critical advantages of WpL is that it captures tacit knowledge within the organisation: valuable knowledge, skills and attitudes that might otherwise be lost.


Dr Phua Chee Teck is Director of the National Centre of Excellence for Workplace Learning (NACE). He and the NACE team drive the Workplace Learning (WpL) ecosystem in Singapore. Their work includes developing the National Workplace Learning Framework and harmonising the On-the-Job Training (OJT) Blueprint for Work-Study Programmes offered by polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education. To date, NACE and NACE Centres have collectively helped more than 1,000 local organisations embark on their WpL implementation journey to retain talent and grow competencies.

Phua is a believer and practitioner of lifelong learning, and regularly shares his insights with organisation leaders. He earned his PhD from the University of Paris-Est through a work-study research programme.


  1. Ministry of Trade and Industry, Report of the Committee on the Future Economy: Pioneers of the Next Generation, February 2017, accessed July 16, 2021, https://www.mti.gov.sg/-/media/MTI/Resources/Publications/Report-of-the-Committee-on-the-Future-Economy/CFE_Full-Report.pdf.
  2. International Labour Organization, "Structured Workplace Learning: An Introduction" (draft, 2009), https://apskills.ilo.org/resources/intro-to-workplace-learning-david-lancaster-draft.
  3. Goh Yan Han, “Salary Not Main Driver of Job Satisfaction for Singapore Workers”, The Straits Times, January 17, 2019, accessed July 10, 2021, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/salary-not-main-driver-of-job-satisfaction-for-spore-workers-report/.
  4. Randstad Singapore, “The 2020 COVID-19 Labour Pulse Survey”, August 12, 2020, accessed July 10, 2021, https://www.randstad.com.sg/hr-trends/talent-management/86-per-cent-motivated-to-upskill-and-re-skill-in-12-months/.
  5. Liz Fealy, “How Employers and Employees are Envisioning the Reimaged Workplace”, EY, April 22, 2021, accessed July 10, 2021, https://www.ey.com/en_sg/workforce/how-employers-and-employees-are-envisioning-the-reimagined-workplace.
  6. PwC, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) 24th Annual Global CEO Survey, accessed July 10, 2021, https://www.pwc.com/cl/es/publicaciones/pwc-24th-global-ceo-survey.pdf.
  7. Ministry of Education, “Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Education, at the Nus115 Distinguished Speaker Series—Shaping the Future of Education”, December 3, 2020, accessed July 16, 2021, https://www.moe.gov.sg/news/speeches/20201203-speech-by-mr-lawrence-wong-minister-for-education-at-the-nus115-distinguished-speaker-series-shaping-the-future-of-education.
  8. “Employers Must Take Ownership of Skills Utilisation: Singapore Education Minister Lawrence Wong”, LEARNTech Asia, December 14, 2020, accessed July 10, 2021, https://learntechasia.com/employers-ownership-skills-singapore-education-wong/.

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