I recently returned from Singapore where Asia Society held our third Global Cities Education Network Symposium. As part of the activities, attendees visit schools and businesses to gain a better sense of why there are no “education dead ends,” as my colleague, Heather Singmaster, reports.
I would guess most Americans who visit Singapore as an “educational tourist” walk away feeling both impressed and slightly depressed. I know I was impressed with how well the system runs (and it truly is a system), and with how well aligned it is to workforce needs. Yet I was also depressed because comparing Singapore to the United States is futile—we obviously can’t completely copy nor take to scale what Singapore does. However, we can still look for best practices to adapt and mold to fit our local district or state programs.
One area where I think this is particularly true is the creation of business partnerships to support the alignment of education to workforce needs.
I visited HomeFix, a local home fix-it store that has partnered with the NorthLight School, which provides a hands-on, career-focused education for at-risk students (defined as those who have failed the Primary School Leaving Examination at least once, but for many, twice). The first year of classes at NorthLight emphasizes passion for learning, innovation, and teamwork—the values of HomeFix as well. Year two students take classes in each of the school’s specialty areas: mechanical services, facility services, hospitality, industrial attachment, and retail. They then chose one area to focus on for their last two years at the school. HomeFix provides those in retail with the opportunity to work at one of their stores during their final school year.
Internships aren’t the extent of HomeFix’s corporate commitment either. Annually they sponsor a volunteer project where they adopt ten students’ homes to clean, paint, and fix. The following year the students who benefited must volunteer and help with another student’s home. HomeFix believes this allows students to see the practical applications of what they are learning and also builds teamwork skills.
HomeFix works with other schools across Singapore, such as the Crest School. Here they built a mock store so students can practice their skills in a realistic setting. They hope to add one to the NorthLight School as well by 2015.
What motivates HomeFix to do this? For one, a sense of corporate responsibility. And increasingly businesses around the world, including in Singapore, realize that students are not graduating with the hands-on skills they need for success. Businesses are more and more forced to hire those with the right personality and then grooming them on-the-job with the needed skills. HomeFix saw an opportunity to begin teaching students before they even filled out an application. Not only does this mean better-trained workers, but better-trained employees as well. If an employee is able to successfully instruct a student, they are able to manage anyone.
Additionally, the retail industry is not an attractive one in Singapore, where there is tremendous parental and societal pressure to go to university. To battle this, HomeFix and other companies are using clear career ladders with management options. Employees receive annual training to both advance their careers and to obtain certificates that are nationally recognized and transferable.
One other lesson from Singapore that strikes me every time I visit, is that there are no education dead ends. The government spends the most on the bottom 25% of students. Going to NorthLight does not sentence these students to low-wage jobs. Thirty-three percent of them go on to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) for postsecondary training. Others go to the polytechnic institutions. But even those who go straight into the workforce take continuing education classes.
With one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world, Singapore knows that its people are its greatest resource. Offering all students access to an engaging education, with multiple opportunities that ensure every student succeeds, is the way they utilize all of their resources, address societal issues, and spend as little money as possible on prisons, which studies show are much more expensive than a good education. (The United States, as the country with the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, should take note.)
Studies show the U.S. what Singaporean businesses already know: graduating more students reaps huge economic benefits. If 90% of the class of 2012 had graduated, there would be a corresponding increase of $6.1 billion in annual spending and $10.9 billion in increased annual GDP.
Those are figures we can’t afford to ignore.
Heather Singmaster is Assistant Director, Education, Asia Society.
Photo: Education leaders from around the world visit Singapore’s ITE College Central. (Steve Tan)
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