In the earlier part of 2020, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower introduced a Self-Employed Person (SEP) Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) to broaden support for eligible SEPs affected by COVID-19, and tide them over this period of economic uncertainty. Besides cash support, SkillsFuture Credit top-up was also given to every Singaporean aged 25 and above to encourage continuous learning.
This income and training support relief had arrived timely to address the livelihood and development of a rising non-permanent workforce here, owing to the global gig economy phenomenon, where more are taking up contract or freelance work as opposed to full-time jobs.
Technological advancements as well as lifestyle and life stage preferences impacting an individual’s desire for autonomy and flexibility are some common motivations to opt for non-permanent work. However, there is no question that non-permanent work is both contingent and precarious in nature, and access to a structured learning comes as an opportunity cost for such workers.
So how can continuous learning become a reality for the non-permanent workforce?
Learning through mentorship, information sharing and collective learning in everyday work and practices are some of the ways to help non-permanent workers stay on top of market trends and continually sharpen their professional skills.
When learners are able to identify work role models and collect stories from them about market practices and their work experiences on how to negotiate and gain contract-based projects, it helps to support their self-directed learning towards becoming knowledgeable practitioners.
For workers joining organisational teams as agency staff, casuals, contract staff, or freelancers, moving between assignments within an organisation or between organisations, entails continuous learning:
- workers have to learn to ‘read’ norms and expectations quickly, and put their capabilities to work according to the situation.
- Non-linear process can involve meeting a multiplicity of performance expectations and requirements. Both depend on capabilities to use judgement to assess new situations, and to bring them under control.
Quality of work assignments and environments
Beyond learning through integrated practices in an occupational community, the quality of the work assignments and environments in which they are carried out still fundamentally affect their learning.
For non-permanent workers, the development of capabilities depends most heavily on the quality of serial assignments and networks to access in-house opportunities. With a lack of quality assignments, the worker is forced to move from one exploitative, routinised or corner-cutting assignment to the next to sustain their income, potentially undermining and restricting their longer-term capability development, and limiting their overall career growth: ‘no trajectory, no career, no security’.
Regulation of employment relationships
Those who are regarded as marginal are rarely seen by organisations as a resource in solving organisational work problems, despite often coming with considerable prior experience. In this case, trade union support structures are at best only patchily available to non-permanent workers, often provided through mutual or co-operative enterprises.
In practice, identity development takes place through serial engagements. The interplay of these dimensions creates fundamentally different learning and development spaces around non-permanent work.
Learning in relation to flexible work
With changing work patterns and workforce composition going across and beyond traditional boundaries, it is time to consider evolving standard competence-based frameworks to a more inclusive and progressive approach to support learning and development for non-permanent workers.
When learning is left to individuals to continually re-skill at their own time and cost, the standard pathways to learning and qualification are closed off.
Hence, supporting and enhancing temporary workers' learning plans needs to be viewed holistically at personal and work levels. This will allow them to have access to the same opportunities and resources as full-time workers to develop their trajectory in more meaningful ways.
This article has been adapted from the publication “How Non-Permanent Workers Learn and Develop Challenges and Opportunities” by Helen Bound, Karen Evans, Sahara Sadik & Annie Karmel. Dr Helen Bound and Sahara Sadik are part of the Centre for Work and Learning at the Institute for Adult Learning (IAL), an autonomous institute under the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS)