Encourage more to learn trades to fill labour gap

This file photo shows construction workers as they build an apartment building in Virginia, US.
This file photo shows construction workers as they build an apartment building in Virginia, US. PHOTO: AFP

The conventional wisdom here is that most Singaporeans have no interest in becoming a mechanic, plumber, electrician or any other blue-collar professional ("Set up training school for building trades" by Ms Josephine Chong Siew Nyuk ; last Thursday).

Indeed, these skills have largely disappeared among locally born Singaporeans, and these jobs are mostly performed by imported labour.

Then, there is the perception that working with your hands is "low class" and that Singaporeans want only an air-conditioned office job with a fancy title.

Singapore's labour policy reflects a near-sighted view towards what is expedient and of immediate concern. A skills shortage is quickly remedied by issuing work permits and permanent residency status to anyone with that skill.

While this is fine in the short run, it can have detrimental effects on the native population.

As we celebrate SG50, I urge our leaders and all citizens to take a hard look at our labour policy and at ourselves.

Do we consider blue-collar work to be low class, and are we happy with outsourcing essential jobs to foreigners rather than training and developing locals to fill them?

Do we want a nation that tries to be self-sufficient and provides opportunities for its own?

There was a time when schools taught subjects like basic electrical work and woodworking to introduce students to a profession in the trades. I contend that Singaporeans will respond positively to opportunities to earn a decent living as a skilled tradesperson.

I envision a Singapore for Singaporeans where even the least of us can contribute to society with dignity.

This may cost more than importing a worker, but it is time for us, as the wealthiest South-east Asian nation, to decide whether we wish to be a nation where only the brilliant, talented and ambitious thrive and those who are unable to keep up are left to do the work that no one wants at a subsistence wage.

Developing skills in the trades will take years and concerted effort on the part of the Government, to first promote the idea that there is no shame in working with your hands.

More importantly, wages will have to rise to become competitive with those of white-collar jobs.

At the end of the day, every person wants to earn enough to support himself and his family, and to afford a little luxury. If one could earn more as an auto mechanic than as a sales clerk or any other white-collar professional, would one still choose the latter?

There will always be a need for electricians, plumbers, computer technicians and auto mechanics. These are essential jobs that never go away.

Is it not worthwhile to pay more for locals to do the work rather than be dependent on foreign labour?

Jeffrey Ho Choong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2015, with the headline 'Encourage more to learn trades to fill labour gap'. Print Edition | Subscribe