Trade bodies in pursuit of quality talent

(Clockwise from top left) Mr Edwin Khew, Mr Andrew Tjioe, Mr Jeremy Fong and Mr Douglas Foo represent the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore, Restaurant Association of Singapore, Singapore Precision Engineering and Technology Association and
Mr Edwin Khew (above), Mr Andrew Tjioe, Mr Jeremy Fong and Mr Douglas Foo represent the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore, Restaurant Association of Singapore, Singapore Precision Engineering and Technology Association and Singapore Manufacturing Federation respectively. PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
(Clockwise from top left) Mr Edwin Khew, Mr Andrew Tjioe, Mr Jeremy Fong and Mr Douglas Foo represent the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore, Restaurant Association of Singapore, Singapore Precision Engineering and Technology Association and
Mr Edwin Khew, Mr Andrew Tjioe (above), Mr Jeremy Fong and Mr Douglas Foo represent the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore, Restaurant Association of Singapore, Singapore Precision Engineering and Technology Association and Singapore Manufacturing Federation respectively. PHOTO: SINGAPORE EXCHANGE
(Clockwise from top left) Mr Edwin Khew, Mr Andrew Tjioe, Mr Jeremy Fong and Mr Douglas Foo represent the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore, Restaurant Association of Singapore, Singapore Precision Engineering and Technology Association and
Mr Edwin Khew, Mr Andrew Tjioe, Mr Jeremy Fong (above) and Mr Douglas Foo represent the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore, Restaurant Association of Singapore, Singapore Precision Engineering and Technology Association and Singapore Manufacturing Federation respectively. PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
(Clockwise from top left) Mr Edwin Khew, Mr Andrew Tjioe, Mr Jeremy Fong and Mr Douglas Foo represent the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore, Restaurant Association of Singapore, Singapore Precision Engineering and Technology Association and
Mr Edwin Khew, Mr Andrew Tjioe, Mr Jeremy Fong and Mr Douglas Foo (above) represent the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore, Restaurant Association of Singapore, Singapore Precision Engineering and Technology Association and Singapore Manufacturing Federation respectively. PHOTO: SAKAE HOLDINGS

Trade associations and chambers play a critical role in driving industry transformation and growth, but they will have to raise their game as Singapore strives to stay competitive in the future. In a roundtable discussion, representatives from four trade organisations - the Singapore Manufacturing Federation, the Singapore Precision Engineering and Technology Association, the Restaurant Association of Singapore and the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore - talk about the way forward.

Q What do you see as your main challenges today and how do you plan to overcome them?

Mr Jeremy Fong, chairman of the Singapore Precision Engineering and Technology Association: Challenges facing trade associations and chambers (TACs) are many but they boil down to one issue - the talent shortage, or the lack of funding to engage highly capable people.

TACs are non-profit organisations. Their main source of income is derived from membership subscriptions. This alone cannot support their operating costs. Without capable staff to run the associations professionally, there will be declining membership - this can start a chain reaction.

Mr Edwin Khew, chairman of the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore (Seas): Low oil prices and, as a result, falling electricity prices, are making it difficult for our members to close new renewable energy orders for solar PV (photovoltaic), biomass and biogas projects.

This will impact the businesses of most of our members, including those in the energy-efficiency business, as this will affect the business model for project financing by banks and investment companies.

Mr Andrew Tjioe, president of the Restaurant Association of Singapore: With an increase in different types of food and beverage businesses joining the Restaurant Association of Singapore, we now have a wider variety of needs and expectations to fulfil.

With this, we plan to further customise our programmes and events to ensure that our members are getting the most benefits out of our activities.

Mr Douglas Foo, president of the Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF): Generally, many SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) are aware of the importance to transform through productivity and innovation programmes.

However, there is still strong apprehension and aversion to change. Hence, TACs like the SMF have various programmes to educate and help SMEs on their transformation journey.

We are confident that given time, relevant support and good coordination among the stakeholders, Singapore can successfully transform into a competitive and future-ready economy.

Q While Singapore companies transform themselves to be future-ready, how can TACs do the same within their own organisations?

Mr Fong: Many TACs are small and too diverse - they must integrate or combine with related TACs for better resource and cost management. This will also make it more efficient for the Government to interact with them.

TACs must also have business focus besides social activities for networking purpose. As TACs' council members are from the industry, they are able to speak the industry's language and can hence help promote government programmes in a more effective manner.

Mr Foo: We need to have a strong and stable talent pool in the TAC secretariat to support the interests of the industry sectors that they serve. Professional training and fair remuneration packages are areas which TACs can improve on.

One positive development is the Government's recently announced move to second public officers to TACs. This initiative is most welcome as TACs can strengthen coordination with the public sector as well as overcome their human resource constraints at least in the short run.

Mr Khew: Ours is a very specialised industry with high growth potential. We need to develop capabilities in this sector across the board from engineers, architects, project managers, researchers and financial institutions.

Our local institutions and institutes of higher learning have to develop more and relevant courses in this sector in close consultation with the industry.

We also have to understand the needs of the regional market in the near and medium term so that we can prepare our members to service and capture this market ahead of our competition.

We are already doing this by working closely with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and jointly running capacity-building workshops for policymakers in the 46 developing member countries of the ADB in Asia.

Q Mr Khew, Seas is a relatively young trade association. Do you think you are hindered by this fact?

Mr Khew: While Seas is only a 10-year-old association, we think that has been to our advantage as we are nimble, forward-thinking and an association looking towards being future-ready for the association and also for our members.

In the 10 years, we have come up with many programmes that are quite unique compared with those of other TACs, like setting up a sustainable energy centre of excellence with the support of the ADB and IE Singapore to train regional policymakers.

Our business development and training departments have been lauded by our members for being very relevant to the industry and working closely with them to address their needs.

Q How are your talent needs changing as you head into the future?

Mr Fong: We need good leaders as much as precision engineering companies do. This includes talent in the areas of success planning, financial planning and strategy. Resource and risk management experts are also required.

Mr Tjioe: Our staff need to become even more dynamic and keep up with the quickly changing industry landscape to better assist our members.

Q How can the Government help you in this journey towards the future?

Mr Tjioe: As a non-profit organisation, our resources are limited when it comes to staff hiring and training.

With the Government's support, we can further develop our team to create even better activities. The Government can also help by facilitating knowledge transfer to help our association reach greater heights.

Mr Khew: In Singapore, so far, our sector has developed not with government subsidies but with government support. This was not the case in many developed countries like Germany, Italy and Spain. However, it is still a young industry and needs supportive policies, incentives and leadership from the government sector in terms of adoption of renewable energy.

Q Mr Tjioe, some experts believe there are simply too many F&B outlets in Singapore, and everyone is facing a talent shortage. What can the industry do to better optimise its resources?

Mr Tjioe: The F&B industry should always remain dynamic in order to keep Singapore as a top-choice holiday and business destination. It'll be a constant battle among the F&B players to get the best talent.

However, we should also remember that the right training and guidance can groom staff with the right attitude to take on bigger roles in the future.

Q What advice do you have for your member companies today?

Mr Tjioe: It's a very challenging business environment that we're operating in right now. It takes great flexibility and adaptability to ride the waves and turn it into an "opportunity".

We should all be open-minded, widen our exposure and network with more fellow industry players.

Mr Foo: As the manufacturing industry transforms, many local SMEs are finding their roles of middlemen and traders being marginalised as it has become easier for buyers to find sellers with the prevalence of the Internet and globalisation.

We therefore reiterate our stance that companies must innovate their business models in order to stay ahead of the competition and find means to collaborate and grow their businesses.

Mr Fong: Precision engineering companies must be receptive to changes, particularly in the integration of services, processes and even companies to become a bigger and efficient corporation.

They should compete as a nation, not among themselves.

In addition, companies in the sector should invest in internationalisation for bigger market access, as well as in innovation to develop niche areas for better competitiveness.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2016, with the headline 'Trade bodies in pursuit of quality talent'. Print Edition | Subscribe