This article was first published in the September 2017 Singapore edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

In his May Day rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the concerns over jobs; redundancies rose last year as businesses restructured, with more of the same to continue despite better economic growth. 

Lee highlighted strategies the government is taking in tackling shortages: creating new jobs by bringing in new businesses and investments through, for example, the work of the Economic Development Board; helping displaced workers find new roles; and training workers to develop in their existing jobs. 

That speech led me to consider what we can learn from the past and how employment has evolved. As the economy has responded to the ebb and flow of global upheaval, technology has quickened the pace of digital uptake, and business practices have become more outward facing, putting traditional job functions on the line. Is there a job function to fulfil and is an employee needed to perform that function?

Less than a hundred years ago, transportation was fulfilled by horse; then came the invention of the motor vehicle. Today, self-drive vehicles are making an impact and the future may well see their proliferation on our roads. From horseman to driver to redundant driver, the future will see roles increasingly automated.

It is interesting to note that even though a motor vehicle replaced a horse, its capacity is still measured by ‘horsepower’. If I apply the same analogy to a job, what is the horsepower equivalent of measuring our human capacity to perform a job function? 

When our human horsepower capacity does not match its automated equivalent there will be no job – a stark reality of the impact of technology. Job functions will either be merged, automated, redundant, reduced or replaced by another deliverable with improved outcomes. 

Expand your skillset

Multifunctional roles can help to avoid a job being too narrowly focused and at risk of loss. In my first job as a financial controller, procurement, IT and corporate secretarial functions were not my core competencies as a trained professional accountant. The multi- and cross-functional needs for the job allowed me to develop my skillset along with the industrial domain knowledge and experience that no classroom can provide. It developed me as a ‘T-shaped professional’. 

‘Will the job of an accountant become obsolete?’ is one of the concerns expressed by young professionals contemplating whether to join the profession. My short response to the question has always been, ‘No, not if you skills are up-to-date and your role is in demand.’ 

In its groundbreaking report Professional accountants – the future: Drivers of change and future skills, ACCA identified the main drivers for change that will have the most impact on the profession, along with the myriad skills required by accounting professionals. Among those drivers of change is the trend in digital technologies and their impact on business as smart software and systems will replace manual accounting work in the future and automate complex processes.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report stated that five million jobs will be lost by 2020 and that skillsets need a radical overhaul to keep up with the pace of change. Businesses, argues the report, have to put talent development at the top of the agenda to ensure that their workforces meet the challenges of the future. Top skills in 2020 are: complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision-making, service orientation, negotiation and cognitive flexibility. 

Transform and boost

Continued training is a knowledge acquisition process for skill and requires consistent application to perfect it. Adding a suite of training courses to your resume does not translate into an affirmation of your performance competency; it is only a confirmation of your knowledge. As the management guru Stephen Covey said: ‘To learn and not to do is really not to learn. To know and not to do is really not to know’.

Our national focus on developing skills for the future is a step in the right direction. To develop our skills, we need to acquire ‘transformer and booster’ tools.

A ‘transformer’ tool is essential in every job to equip us with the transformational skills to cope with technology, trends, and the economic, social, and political landscape so that we can fulfil the functional needs required in every job. 

A ‘booster’ tool can sustain a job with insights and experience built upon foundational core competencies and acquired through ‘deep dives’ into every aspect of the business needs. It’s about anticipating the requirements of a business by being proactive and seeking greater clarity on what you do.

Armed with these tools and ensuring that our roles are multifunctional can help sustain the role of the well-rounded finance professional in Singapore and help industry thrive now and beyond. 

James Lee FCCA is director of finance, Sofitel Singapore City Centre