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ESSENTIAL DOMESTIC SERVICES

Creating good job opportunities

Technology is transforming healthcare and education, the two sectors covered by the Future Economy Council's essential domestic services subcommittee, but there will always be a key role for workers.

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Mary Liew and Chee Hong Tat, co-chairs of the Future Economy Council's essential domestic services subcommittee, at NTUC First Campus's My First Skool at Jalan Sultan.

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Doctor Anywhere founder and chief executive officer Lim Wai Mun. The healthtech company's mobile app offers video-call consultations, as well as delivery of medication and documents.

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Vincent Teoh, executive director of Zoo-phonics Asia, which runs Zoo-phonics enrichment centres and Safari House preschools.

HEALTHCARE and education may seem to be very different industries, but some key questions apply to both: How can quality be improved, while keeping services accessible and affordable? How can better processes and technology increase efficiency? And how can good jobs be created?

These are the issues set out by Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry and Education Chee Hong Tat, co-chair of the Future Economy Council's essential domestic services subcommittee, which covers those two sectors.

Both sectors provide jobs for many Singaporeans and have good growth potential, with an ageing population and the ramping up of early childhood education. The question is: "How do we create - through job redesign, through career progression opportunities and training - good job opportunities for our workers?"

In adult education and training, which is "more exportable", the task is to both create jobs at home and find opportunities to go abroad, he adds.

While workers may be apprehen-sive about transformation, it is important for them to realise that they play a central role and stand to benefit too, says subcommittee co-chair National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) president Mary Liew.

Learning new methods

Caregiver robots have made headlines elsewhere, but may not be part of transformation in Singapore, says Mr Chee. Robots are used here mainly for backend processes such as labelling and sorting medicines, which frees workers from repetitive tasks and reduces human error; or for physically strenuous work such as cleaning. Rather, transformation here could involve novel approaches, possibly aided by technology.

"One of the challenges with an ageing population is that the nature of the healthcare services that we provide will also need to evolve," says Mr Chee. Previously, much demand was for acute care in hospitals. But with the ageing population comes a rising need for community and home care for chronic illnesses; step-down care; and a focus on prevention.

Current processes and care models must change. Physiotherapy used to be "high-touch", with patients travelling to centres. But not all patients may find it easy to leave their homes.

One alternative is to communicate via video, with sensors tracking how well the patient performs their exercises. The therapist can thus give feedback and track the patient's progress remotely. Without a need to travel, therapists can see more patients too.

The government is exploring how to tap emerging technologies - which may require new rules - while protecting consumers. Under the Ministry of Health's Licensing Experimentation and Adaptation Programme, regulatory "sandboxes" provide safe, controlled frameworks within which providers can explore innovative models and services, while regulators can better understand the risks.

Such sandboxes provide an open line between authorities and providers, for constant communication, says Doctor Anywhere founder and chief executive officer Lim Wai Mun. "It's not the very authoritative 'I say, you do' conversation. It is two-way."

Doctor Anywhere is participating in the telemedicine regulatory sandbox, ahead of the sector's eventual regulation. Its mobile app offers video-call consultations, as well as delivery of medication and documents.

With people "now very used to consuming everything on their phone", this on-demand model is easily understood, says Mr Lim. But to cross the final hurdles of scepticism, the regulatory sandbox is crucial in assuring consumers and insurers that the authorities are on top of things: "So with the regulator standing behind and saying 'Okay, these guys are in my sandbox, I have my eyes on them', the insurer will say 'Okay, I'll give it a go'."

For further convenience, Doctor Anywhere's app has a marketplace with services such as at-home health screenings and vaccinations, and wellness products for home delivery.

Options for all

For workers, too, simple applications of technology can lighten their load. With the facilities management system in NTUC First Campus's My First Skool preschools, maintenance issues can be reported via an app for easy tracking and prompt action.

Other systems could help with tasks such as taking attendance or contacting parents, says Mr Chee. The Early Childhood Development Agency can work with solution providers to develop such tools, then implement these with anchor operators.

"Individually, each centre may not have the scale to do the research, try the different technologies, customise the different systems. But if you aggregate the demand and you do it through such an approach, once you develop, you can scale it up and everybody can then just plug and play." After all, admin needs are unlikely to vary much from centre to centre: "So you don't have to reinvent the wheel."

A similar approach can be taken for training: "If you develop your own training, it's very expensive." Smaller preschool operators could pool their training needs and work with partners such as NTUC LearningHub to develop a training course together.

They can also tap centralised catering services, under an initiative led by the Association of Early Childhood and Training Services. External catering by trusted providers ensures quality, and allows teachers to focus on their core work, said Vincent Teoh, executive director of Zoo-phonics Asia, which runs Zoo-phonics enrichment centres and Safari House preschools. "It has allowed our centre leaders to focus more on the curriculum."

Safari House boasts a modern curriculum that incorporates bilingualism, music, and character building - and modern operations, enabled by digital technology.

Administrative work is more efficient with digital student and teacher records, and a cloud accounting system. Teaching resources are also on the cloud and can thus be easily accessed from any of its centres. With video and audio recording of lessons, teachers can be monitored and given feedback remotely.

In short, technology can be an important enabler at the backend, making teachers' jobs easier, sums up Mr Teoh. But he adds: "We still believe that technology cannot replace the human touch for all our preschoolers."

At Safari House, teachers still read storybooks aloud to children, rather than using tablets or apps. Even televisions do not feature in the centres.

The human touch

"When it comes to industries like healthcare, like education, I think the human touch is still very critical," says Mr Chee. "You still want that care and concern, you still want the teacher-pupil interaction."

Recognising this need, Doctor Anywhere has tied up with offline doctors since mid-2019. If required, a doctor giving a video consultation can refer the patient to a nearby partner clinic, and easily transfer the patient's info over. "That helps to transit the patient smoothly offline," says Mr Lim.

In short, there will always be a key role for workers. "In many countries, when you do transformation, workers are worried," notes Mr Chee. "But in Singapore's case, I think we are able to do this transformation well because we have the trust and confidence that we have built up through our tripartite partnership."

Unions play a key role in explaining to workers how transformation can benefit them. Showing workers the "visible advantages" of transformation can help them overcome such fears, says Ms Liew.

The essential domestic services cluster is notable for comprising sectors "which are inclusive in terms of the kinds of jobs they can create", notes Mr Chee: jobs that are open to a wide range of skillsets, education levels, and backgrounds.

The Singapore brand

Healthcare and education firms also share an advantage when going overseas: Singapore's strong reputation in both sectors.

Doctor Anywhere made its first overseas foray last year, launching in Vietnam in partnership with a local insurer and telco. This February, it launched in Thailand at the invitation of a Singapore insurer that has operations there. These regional versions have gained consumer confidence, thanks partly to the app's origins in Singapore, says Mr Lim.

Similarly, Safari House opened its first branch in Malaysia in 2018, and now has three there. "Outside Singapore, I think we have seen that quite a number of parents look up to Singapore education," says Mr Teoh.

In adult training and education, firms can tap various toolkits, frameworks, standards, and systems developed by the Singapore government, adapting these for overseas markets, says Anderson Tan, managing director of training firm Xprienz and former president of the Strategic Association of Professional Training-Consulting Organisations.

He himself set up an international industry skills certification system modelled after the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications system, and has held capability development workshops overseas on the adoption of Singapore skills frameworks.

If adapted to the needs of other countries, Singapore's frameworks can create opportunities for consultants and adult educators to provide their services abroad, he adds.

For its part, the Singapore Maritime Officers' Union has helped to train sea-going officers overseas, including in Myanmar, Indonesia, and the Philippines, says Ms Liew. SEED Institute, the training arm of NTUC First Campus, is also providing early childhood training in the Seychelles.

In short, while improving and transforming essential domestic services at home, Singapore can take its lessons abroad too.