Career Prospects Hampered by Digital Skills Gap

07 Nov 2020

Straits Times, 7 Nov 2020, Career Prospects Hampered by Digital Skills Gap

Sha (not her real name), 27, who has a temporary job as a temperature taker in a pharmaceutical firm, hopes to land a better-paying administrative job after her contract ends on Nov 30.

But the mother of two, who has not used a computer for seven years, knows she has much to catch up on if she hopes to secure such a job, which would require more advanced skills on platforms such as Microsoft Excel.

"Because I have gone so long without a computer, I'm really not that expert (at using it); I just know the basics. Now it has all developed so fast, (all the work) needs to be done with a computer," said Sha, who dropped out of school in Secondary 4 before completing her N levels. Her children are aged seven and 11.

Before her current job, she worked in customer service and as a receptionist.

Though she wants to buy a laptop to practise her Microsoft Office skills in her free time, she said the price tag is too hefty for her and her husband, a pest control worker.

Adults, particularly those who are lower-income or who have caregiving responsibilities like Sha, should not be left out of the discussion on digital inclusion, said experts, who worry that they lack the time or access to resources to learn and navigate new digital technologies.

This could widen the skills gap between blue-and white-collar professionals, said Associate Professor Irene Ng of the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Social Service Research Centre and Department of Social Work.

She noted that research has shown how access to digital devices increases digital literacy. "If low-income individuals can't afford to own a computer, then how are they to close the gap with PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians), who own and use computers every day?" she asked.

Ms Fannie Lim, executive director of charity Daughters of Tomorrow (DOT), said a number of the charity's clients, who are mostly low-income women, face barriers in using infocomm technology.

They may lack IT literacy as their previous jobs did not require such skills, or because they have not gone for IT skills training since leaving school. Some women do not even know how to use a mouse, she said.

To bridge the gap, some of DOT's clients - including Sha - will be progressively attending IT literacy classes, with laptops loaned to those who need them.

Professor Lim Sun Sun, who is head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, noted that job hiring practices have shifted online in the light of the pandemic - be it using algorithms to sieve out inappropriate resumes or conducting job interviews virtually.

She is concerned that lower-income adults may be less aware of how their resumes must contain strategic search terms to avoid being rejected by machine learning-enabled candidate selection processes. They may also not be prepared for digital interviews, which typically require "a certain style of self-presentation".

That was an issue that Emy, 35, (not her real name) grappled with. After leaving her customer service job last year, she finally landed a job interview in April, which had to be done over Zoom. Thinking it was "just a video interview", she did not dress in proper business attire for it.

"I ended up bombing the interview," recalled Emy, who eventually secured an administrative job after getting career coaching from Image Mission, a non-profit organisation that helps low-income or disadvantaged women by providing career coaching and job interview preparation.

"They reminded me to prepare things that I never even thought about, like ensuring I had a stable Internet connection to do the interview, and to put my phone on a stable surface so that it wouldn't be shaky," said Emy.

Some clients may also lack the equipment to conduct job searches or attend online courses, noted a spokesman for Image Mission.

A survey of 98 clients conducted in April found that while four in five of them have a mobile phone, almost half do not have a desktop or laptop computer at home to use the Internet.

"This indicates that many do not have an optimal experience for writing their resume, conducting online job searches, and attending online training or job interviews," said its spokesman.

Single mother Diyanah (not her real name), who is working part-time as a HR assistant while completing a polytechnic diploma in human resource management, faced issues securing a laptop.

Though her school offered a laptop subsidy scheme, she said that students have to be under 25 years old to qualify. This excluded Diyanah, who is 33. She eventually received one from Care Community Services Society, a charity.

"The laptop is something personal to you. You don't just use it for entertainment; it is also used for (writing) documents, for organising your life, and to do everything you need to do at work and in school," she said.

Experts said less privileged households tend to rely on mobile phones to access the Internet instead of using laptops or desktop computers.

Labour economist Walter Theseira noted that while smartphones and the mobile Internet are great for digital consumption, these tools are poorly suited for "production" - be it writing a document or preparing a CV. Results from such tools are markedly inferior to that produced by computers, coming with "telltale problems" like odd alignment.

"Therefore we should not measure digital inclusion solely by whether someone has a smartphone and mobile Internet," he said.

Just as how secondary school students will now be provided with a laptop or tablet from next year, laptops should be built in as part of course materials for career courses and included in the computation for financial aid as well, or loaned out, said Prof Ng.

Prof Theseira said it is also important to examine whether the real challenge faced by this group is the lack of the correct technology or device, the lack of training in the use of the device or software, or the lack of skills required for one to be productive when using technology.

"If the real issue is the last type of problem, more foundational training may be required," he said.