INVEST

He has the machines, but struggles to find locals to work them

WHEN oilfield equipment manufacturer HME Technologies moved into a bigger factory in 2011, managing director C.K. Wong's plan was to ramp up production and double revenue.

But expansion efforts at the Jurong factory have come to a standstill, with hiring quotas and levy hikes driving up foreign labour costs over recent years.

"We had to turn away projects because we had no manpower. Support schemes are one thing, but if you can give me a free hand to employ skilled foreign machinists, it's better than if you give me money," says Mr Wong.

He notes that even labour-saving technologies are limited by the difficulty in finding the workers to operate them.

About 60 per cent of HME's 119 employees are foreigners, most of them work-permit holders. Singaporeans are keen to work only as engineers or managers, but what Mr Wong needs are more skilled machinists.

If he sounds like he is pressed, it is partly because he has already used his full entitlement of the Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme and Spring Singapore's Capability Development Grant, which saved HME about $3.6 million in taxes in 2013.

Mr Wong is still buying machines on his own dime. But at this stage of restructuring, he is faced with the million-dollar question: How do you attract young Singaporeans to do hands-on skilled labour?

Wages are not the issue. The benchmark pay for an Institute of Technical Education (ITE) graduate is about $1,700 a month, and HME offers at least $2,500 for skilled machinists. More experienced ones draw $3,000.

So, HME has not made use of the Wage Credit Scheme (WCS) to raise staff salaries.

"We're more concerned with the younger people, and the question is not dollars and cents - the young generation wants to have a clean hand."

For two years, HME has been trying to build a "local-centric workforce", employing mainly Singaporeans, a goal Mr Wong expects will take five years.

For starters, the firm has been giving internships to polytechnic and ITE students to help them understand the industry.

"It's the opposite end of aerospace," Mr Wong likes to say, in that the valves and wellheads he makes are bound for the deep sea - 3,000m underwater - rather than 10,000m in the sky.

So far, HME's human resources initiatives have shown some promise - more than what the firm has achieved at jobs fairs.

The five-year plan also involves setting up an approved training centre at the factory to attract locals. But Mr Wong is anxious in the face of global competition. "Sometimes, the customer won't wait for you for five years."