Developing Human Capital For The New Economy


Image: Today Online Via IPP Review

Singapore’s SkillsFuture program is a major state-level initiative which illustrates one important way governments can help their citizens develop their human capital and retain or even enhance their employability under changing economic conditions.

When the SkillsFuture program was unveiled in 2015, the Singapore government announced that it would be investing SGD 1 billion per year until 2020 in the initiative to “foster and continually renew … deep skills that are critical for the next stage of Singapore’s economy.” While there is nothing new about people improving their employability by taking industry-specific courses — a current example being the global popularity of coding bootcamps — what is different about SkillsFuture is the scope — all Singaporeans are covered — as well as the coordination provided by the government in course provision as well as the substantial state funding provided to course providers and students in terms of subsidies and credit.

While the initiative has enhanced the employability of Singaporean school-leavers and graduates with improved career guidance and “enhanced internships,” mid-career employees have benefitted from subsidies for courses to develop their skillsets: “For instance, a mid-career Singaporean pursuing a part-time engineering undergraduate course will pay $6,800 instead of $17,000, a reduction of 60 per cent.” In addition to these subsidies, the government has granted Singaporeans SGD 500 each in credit to be spent on SkillsFuture courses; this initial credit “will be topped up at regular intervals and not expire.”

The SkillsFuture program will soon be expanded with a selection of 400 new courses in the following “priority and emerging” economic sectors: data analytics, finance, tech-enabled services, digital media, cybersecurity, entrepreneurship, advanced manufacturing, and urban solutions. These courses will initially be targeted at 10,000 Singaporeans, and this number will be increased to 50,000 per year by 2020. Training hours under SkillsFuture will likewise “increase by five-fold from 440,000 hours now to 2.2 million hours” by 2020. The 400 new courses, which will be designed and delivered by Singapore’s polytechnics and universities, will be offered on top of the SkillsFuture program’s existing catalogue of over 20,000 courses.

As Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower explains, the SkillsFuture program should be understood as the continuation of the government’s successful national policy of human capital development: “Investment in human capital through education and training has been at the heart of Singapore’s progress, and has also helped Singaporeans develop and maximize their potential … Continuous education and training remain core to our society and economy today and for the future.”

This is especially the case given ongoing changes in the economy: “As our economy restructures and companies find ways to innovate and enhance productivity, the demand for higher-skilled workers will also increase. Given these trends, the workplace must be a major site of learning, where every Singaporean is able to continue to develop themselves throughout their careers and through life.” As demonstrated by the announcement of the new slate of 400 targeted courses, the ongoing changes in the economy necessitate regular updates in course offerings, since the emergence of new and the decline of sunset industries mean changes in the skillsets employers look for when hiring new employees or promoting existing ones.

The SkillsFuture program illustrates some insights made into human capital — “the abilities and qualities of people that make them productive” — by the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker: “Becker observed that people do acquire general human capital, but they often do so at their own expense, rather than that of employers … Becker made the assumption that people would be hard-headed in calculating how much to invest in their own human capital. They would compare expected future earnings from different career choices and consider the cost of acquiring the education to pursue these careers, including time spent in the classroom.”

Becker’s analyses also “showed that under-investment in human capital was a constant risk: young people can be short-sighted given the long payback period for education; and lenders are wary of supporting them because of their lack of collateral (attributes such as knowledge always stay with the borrower, whereas a borrower’s physical assets can be seized).” This highlights the importance of the subsidies and credit offered by the Singapore government to Singaporeans to take SkillsFuture courses: such state funding fills the gap in private sector financing of such courses, thereby creating greater opportunities for Singaporeans to develop their human capital.

In his analysis of neoliberalism, the late French philosopher Michel Foucault (2008) famously drew on the work of Gary Becker to sketch out how life in a neoliberal economy requires each person to become an entrepreneur of the self who is “for himself his own capital … his own producer,” and “the source of (his) earnings.” His wage hence “is nothing other than the remuneration” earned by putting his human capital to work (p. 226). While Gary Becker himself glossed human capital as “things like education, investment in health, on-the-job training, migration,” Foucault explained human capital as the “abilities-machine” which is nurtured by the self though investments in education and mobility (Becker et al., 2012, p. 14; Foucault, 2008, pp. 229-230).

As I observed during a faculty visit to a rural school in northeastern Nigeria, the strict missionaries who ran the school transformed the “illiterate children of the Koma Hills into literate students and future productive members of Nigeria’s neoliberal economy” by cultivating their human capital: “The polite manners and docility of the mission’s students that we observed on our visit reflect the thorough religious discipline they must undergo every day at the boarding school, and which will enable them to find employment when they eventually enter the workforce. Such discipline makes them ready for employment in the broader capitalist economy.”

In Singapore, the SkillsFuture program is designed to facilitate lifelong human capital development for Singaporeans. An online web portal — — has been launched to help Singaporeans identify and optimize their individual paths in their human capital development. While high school students and school-leavers may use the portal for career guidance, “adults and tertiary students will be able to use self-assessment tools to build a portfolio of skills.” Less technologically-savvy Singaporeans who lack the skills to access the web portal may instead attend island-wide multilingual SkillsFuture Advice workshops which offer “information on key work trends and workplace skills,” and explain how to “develop a personal skills upgrading plan.” Through initiatives like the SkillsFuture program, the entrepreneur of the self no longer needs to brave the neoliberal economy alone.