The Institute of Technical Education (ITE) provides pre-employment training to secondary school leavers and continuing education and training to working adults – offering apprenticeships for the skilled trades and diplomas in vocational education. Low Khah Gek sat down with The Worldfolio to discuss Singapore’s SkillsFuture initiative, how ITE prepares provides students with practical skills for industry, and how its close collaboration with 7,700 companies and overseas universities help to keep its course content relevant and up to date with the demands of employers.
Singapore’s SkillsFuture initiative aims to bridge the gap between academic and practical skills. It has also impacted the role of higher learning education in Singapore. How have you seen the evolution of higher learning institutes in Singapore? How do you see them involving in the near future?
During the Committee of Supply this year, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung talked about the need to take on a new paradigm, where we see our students as our lifelong customers. They may spend two to four years with the education institution, but when they graduate and go out to work, they will still need skills upgrading or re-skilling. Hence they would come back to us for continuing education and training.
It is not just ITE that is responding in this way. The polytechnics and the universities are doing the same. All of us have to look at students as the lifelong customers that will always be connected to the institution. We see ourselves as playing a part in giving them training that gets them started on their first job, and also helping them upgrade their skills. If they need to move to another sector, we equip them with the new skills required. Because of the industry transformation and how dynamic the changes are in the industries, the need to constantly upskill is critical.
Can you define the exact role of ITE within the education system in Singapore?
ITE serves students who are less academically inclined. They do not thrive in the typical academic learning environment. However, our students have demonstrated they have specific strengths and skills that will enable them to thrive and succeed. When they come to us, they discover new areas that they are good in. This is because we give them opportunities to use their hands, do practical work and learn by doing.
Take an example of students who enroll in the Automotive Technology course. They discover that they are great at fixing things. There is no need to do a long essay and describe how the tasks are done. They simply get going and fix it. Or another example of students in the ICT sector, where they find that they can develop IT applications and provide solutions. We have helped students uncover their practical intelligence and ability. They can find work where they create value and when they taste success, they are off in the right trajectory.
ITE’s unique offering is to integrate students into the workforce, which makes your relationship with industry vital. You collaborate with 7,700 companies in order to provide internship for students. How do you work with industry?
Industry engagement is important for a few reasons. Firstly, my staff needs to engage with the industry to know the job roles and skills demanded of our ITE graduates. This way, they can always ensure that our courses and the skills are industry-relevant. Secondly, our students learn best by doing. At ITE, we train our students with technical skills, but at the workplace, our students realize there are other competencies required, such as having to work in a team, communicating effectively and being responsible and accountable. In the workplace, students acquire all these soft skills.
Every staff member has a role in industry engagement. We fan out to persuade different employers from different industry sectors. We also have a board of governors and many of them are from the industry and are able to open up opportunities for us. By the end of this year, we’re able to provide for about 80% of our students getting internships and we aim to achieve 100%. We have just launched a new program called the ‘Work-Learn Technical Diploma’. We work with industries to co-develop the curricula and co-deliver the training. Our industry partners provide 70% of the training on the job while ITE provides the 30% on-campus training. Over a span of three years, the students will build up their skills, be prepared to take on higher level jobs and also achieve a diploma. We have launched four Work-Learn Technical Diplomas and will continue to grow the number.
How do you work with the industry on designing courses?
When we design a new course, we have the relevant industry players come in and work with us. We are very open to industry inputs. At the end of the day, the training we provide for our students must be such that the employer says, ‘This is what I want. These are the skills we need.’ Sometimes a curriculum can be outdated very quickly. We will find ways to respond nimbly by modifying some case studies, skills content or modules and the employers come on board to support us. They will show us what’s the latest equipment that they are using, and we make sure we replicate the same equipment and work processes on campus.
How do you collaborate with MNCs?
MNCs welcome the fact that there is a ready-feeder into their workforce. MNCs are also saying that we should all plan ahead for the future. Many of my students go out and work in the SMEs. The MNCs have a role to bring along the SMEs in the industry transformation journey. We make sure that our students who join the SMEs, have the technological skills to take on the new automation and help the SMEs transform. In a sense, the leadership is already provided. MNCs are supporting the SMEs and saying, ‘Let’s internationalize together. Let us help you with the digital transformation, and let's also ensure that there is a pipeline of workers who are ready.’
Regarding the future, you have three campuses under ‘the three-college master plan.’ Now you’ve moved into your fifth strategic plan called ‘ITE Trailblazer’, can you tell us more about this initiative?
We have a five-year road map which helps us focus on our transformations and our priorities. When the government launched SkillsFuture, it was quite timely for us to evaluate future pathways and opportunities for our students. We analyzed how to develop them in terms of the courses, in terms of the delivery, how they learn, and how we teach. This is all part of the Trailblazer plan. What we do today is focused on how ITE is positioned to prepare our students for the future economy, future jobs and future skills.
Trailblazer represents skills which are very hands-on, and how we embrace new technology. The Trailblazer can also be in terms of how we use the latest equipment, how we redesign the learning space, and how we provide new forms of learning. Actually, internships are quite new, and it’s part of the Trailblazer program. We continue to evolve, with the Work-Learn Technical Diploma, which is something very new. Through our students’ performance during their internships, the companies see their capabilities. The companies are convinced that they can be promoted to a higher level. They then find it worthwhile investing their time in training them.
You collaborate with international institutional organizations. What is the benefit these bring to your institution?
Our strongest partners are the Germans. In 1991, our Minister for Education and Germany’s Minister for Education, Youth and Sports signed an MOU. Every five years, we renew the agreement. We learn about how to teach vocational training from them. There is a lot of transfer of knowledge in terms of the capability of our staff. We have worked with them to deliver two diploma courses, one is in automotive technology, and the other is in machine technology. We adopt their curriculum too. They come and train our teachers, and train us in assessment methods. They still come every year to look at our student projects and raise their levels.
With Paul Bocuse and with other partners, we want to create opportunities for staff and students. It’s part of our drive to create opportunities for our staff to go and visit similar institutions, and to see their equipment, their curriculum, their teaching approaches, and how they inspire and innovate. It is also to help our students understand that if you are being trained as an automotive technician, you can see how this is a highly respectable job in another country. They can be proud of their profession, and also understand that the economy and industries increasingly get connected. It is a globalised world.
We can’t tell how far this can go, but among some of them, perhaps between five to ten years later, they may start their own companies. We have automotive technology students who may start by working. At some point, they may just have their own workshops. Or they may have a regional or global business. So, indeed, such partnerships and opportunities open their eyes, minds and ambitions. They are actually very beneficial.
What about entrepreneurship?
In the last ten years, we have been checking on our students after they have been in the labor market for five years. And we find that 2% actually still remain as entrepreneurs, but actually another 6% have tried but perhaps, it did not work out. So, 8% actually tried entrepreneurship, and 2% succeeded, I would think it’s quite normal.
One of our former graduates, who started working at first, later started his own refrigeration company. Refrigeration is about cooling huge areas. So, he does not just work on one equipment, he has projects to cool down an entire group of them – chillers and non-chillers, piping and air conditioning, and his projects are in the region. Now he starts his day by playing golf in the morning.
We asked our alumni to share their stories with our current students. They’re very young but you never know how things would change ten years from now. One alumnus described how he also started his own company, and then for eight years, he paid his employees, but he doesn’t pay himself and he told his girlfriend to wait for him, and they married after the company took off. So, they realized that to succeed, it’s that ambition, it’s that drive, it’s also that perseverance… My students are used to hardships and failures, and actually because of that, they are very resilient.
In fact, we find that people who are less resilient are those who have had it too easy and had not encountered failures or setbacks. For example, they did very well in primary school, they did very well in secondary school, they went all the way to university, when they were at the university or work, they faced their first major failure and they collapsed because they were not used to it, they were unable to handle setbacks. Our students are used to setbacks, and have dealt with setbacks many times and they bounced back. Thus they are more ready to take the risk and be entrepreneurs. We would like to think that because they came to ITE and we have helped them taste some success, and given them self-belief and competence, they’re not afraid of failure. Because of ITE, they start to believe that actually, they can thrive on their goals.
This is your second year at ITE. Could you tell us about your experience so far?
I understand the ITE student profile, because I know what they were like in primary and secondary schools. I am committed to helping them find the motivation and inspiration to succeed. I did know that what I needed to work intensely on is the engagement of the industry. I also happened to come in in January 2017, when the industry transformation was happening, so industry transformation is very important. What I like about my ITE staff is that they are very mission-oriented. The staff cares a lot for the students, and care in terms of wanting them to succeed and creating opportunities for them. So, I think the staff understands that this industry transformation is something that we must be very involved in, so we can be sure our students would have good jobs and careers. At the recent 25th Anniversary celebrations, we were able to talk about how far we have come, and a large part is due to the planification. I would think that the staff self-select to come here just as I self-select myself to do the same. When I left the ministry, they asked where I’d like to go, and I said, ITE, because I do care about this group of students. Perhaps, my staff and I have chosen an institution with the most challenges, but we also know that we are an institution that create huge social and economic impact if the job is done well. Actually, we have many inspiring stories of students whose lives turned around because of teachers who gave them hope. So, ITE gives students a new start in their lives and offers hope and opportunities. It’s very satisfying when you see the students succeed in life, especially when they previously had very low self-belief. When students come to ITE, a number of them feel very disappointed; they feel that they have failed in life because they didn’t do well. But we are determined and committed to helping them transform their lives.