The most recent announcement that the National Service (NS) Certificate of Service – issued when a full-time serviceman (NSF) completes his NS – will reflect Workforce Skills Qualification (WSQ)-accredited competencies and skills adds to a long list of job-readiness schemes by the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), to improve the employment prospects of NSmen. Six years ago towards the end of 2011, just before I completed my own NS stint, similar schemes included job fairs or career roadshows as well as the ePrep or Electronic Preparatory programme. As NSFs, we received ePrep credits which could be used to subsidise up to 90 per cent of the cost of training courses, intended to prepare us before the transition into the workplace or the university.
Since then the number (and it would appear, the frequency too) of job-readiness schemes – prompted by the 30 recommendations mooted by the Committee to Strengthen NS (CSNS) in 2014, which were subsequently accepted by the government – has only increased. Some of the CSNS recommendations include considering the skills and preferences of NSFs, accrediting acquired skills and personal qualities, and expansion of the range of companies and institutes of higher learning (IHLs) at career fairs, and in response MINDEF has rolled out vocation choices for pre-enlistees, the “enhanced” career fair for NSFs, and now the reflection of WSQ-accredited competencies and skills in the NS Certificate of Service (which builds on ongoing accreditation efforts).
But how do we know if these schemes have been effective? Effectiveness, in this vein, means whether the schemes have actually increased the likelihood of NSF and NSmen employability (from the perspective of the servicemen), and whether companies in Singapore recognise and therefore value the aforementioned accreditation (from the perspective of the company)? Tangible measures of effectiveness, for instance, will include the employment rates of servicemen after they complete their NS, the number of job postings or vacancies by companies, and also the rate of successful matches between NSmen and the companies.
Instead, news articles have followed a predictable but unhelpful template when reporting these job-readiness schemes. And the most recent announcement about the WSQ drearily reflects this: A description of the initiative, the announcement or comments by the defence minister, and then rounding off with a mish-mash of generic anecdotes from the companies (or the servicemen).
Research to ascertain effectiveness is not methodologically difficult. Keeping count of the number of participating NSmen – and publishing these findings – should be a straightforward first step. With ePrep, this means knowing how many NSFs have used credits, the distribution of courses they have enrolled in (and have completed), and how the numbers might have changed over the years. With the job fairs, beyond reporting the number of participating companies and their job vacancies on offer, MINDEF could study if the interactions do lead to first-round interviews or even job placements. The inaugural “enhanced” career fair in 2015 hosted 77 employers and IHLs, yet how many positions were on offer, and how many were filled by NSmen?
Quasi-experiments could, in addition, be designed for more rigorous evaluation of outputs and outcomes. To keep track, in other words. Many of the aforementioned programmes or changes were introduced after 2014, which provides a neat setup to compare a pre-2014 sample (who did not benefit from these job-readiness schemes) and a post-2014 sample (who did benefit from the schemes). Using an appropriate research model, the effectiveness of the schemes can be reasonably tested. And if the results are less than satisfactory, corrective interventions can be implemented. At the very least, for the present moment, a random sampling of NSmen and companies to respectively determine employment status and cognisance of new or existing initiatives can also be productive. The recurring argument here is the need for actionable policy evidence, for MINDEF to justify its schemes.
And if it happens that such data and information are already available, then the ministry should proactively publish it. Because the policy intent is to facilitate smooth transition from NS to employment or further studies, evidence that the job-readiness schemes are effective will only encourage more NSFs to take the WSQ accreditations, ePrep, and job fairs more seriously. Otherwise, what will convince them?