ITE comes of age as it celebrates its 21st anniversary

The Institute of Technical Education matures and gains recognition as a place of learning as it turns 21

After completing Secondary 4 last year, 17-year-old Chen Chow Koon had his heart set on going to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).

The normal academic stream student from Hillgrove Secondary School wanted to study food and beverage operations at the technical institute. But his father, Mr Chen Guan Song, 52, a defence executive officer, did not approve. He felt that ITE was "for Ah Bengs and Ah Sengs" and tried to talk his son out of it.

He even offered his son $500 in the hopes that it would sway him. He and his wife, a housewife in her 40s, wanted their younger son to complete Secondary 5 instead so that he would have more options for his future.

But Chow Koon held his ground because he felt that ITE would get him closer to his dream of becoming the general manager of a hotel or restaurant one day. His parents grudgingly relented.

His story would probably have been unheard of two decades ago, when ITE was often perceived as the last resort of students who could not make it to junior colleges or polytechnics.

However, as it celebrates its 21st year - an age that signifies independence for young people - the institution is moving from an "it's the end" image towards a new beginning.

Established on April 1, 1992, as a post-secondary institute focusing on engineering and technical work, taking in the least academically inclined 25 per cent of each cohort of secondary school leavers, it has fought over the years to shed its image as the lesser cousin of other post-secondary institutes.

These days, however, it is seen as a place to learn a plethora of useful, marketable skills. The institute's curriculum has grown from just 24 courses back then to 105 courses - such as floristry, aerospace engineering and digital audio and video production.

Within the last decade, ITE has also spent $880 million building three mega campuses for its total student enrolment of about 26,800 students.

The newest and largest campus is the sprawling $380-million ITE College Central in Ang Mo Kio, which will officially open in November.

It is roughly the size of 10 football fields, or 10.6ha, and includes facilities such as an Olympic-size swimming pool, a 1,500-seat auditorium and commercial food and beverage and retail outlets such as the foodcourt chain Koufu.

The other mega campuses are the $240- million ITE College East in Simei and the $260-million ITE College West in Choa Chu Kang. They opened in 2005 and 2010 respectively.

All three schools are a far cry from the hand-me-down premises that ITE used to occupy.

Alumni are amazed at the transformation.

Mr Roy Goh, 27, director and chief executive of recording label company P.U.S.Hmusic Records, studied automotive technology in ITE Ang Mo Kio in the early 2000s.

He says: "We did not want to hang around school then, there was nothing to do. We would hang around void decks. Now, they have Koufu, FairPrice and restaurants - it is like a second home, students want to hang around there."

Another ITE alumni, Mr Jason Sim, 47, executive chairman and chief executive of the publicly listed timber flooring services company Jason Parquet Holdings, was also impressed.

He studied metal machinery at the Vocational and Industrial Training Board in the early 1980s, which became ITE in 1992.

He says: "Thirty years ago, my school was like a typical primary school.

"The new campuses are fantastic, just like a university. If you do not build such a good school, who would send their children there?"

He is married with four children aged five to 19. If his children ever faced the question of whether to go to ITE, he would encourage them to do so, he says.

But it is not just the campus facilities that are making an impact - ITE students and graduates have also made their mark on employers in Singapore.

The Conrad Centennial Singapore has been taking in about 15 to 20 ITE students on six-month internships every year since five to seven years ago. They are usually from the higher National ITE certificate course in Hospitality Operations.

The hotel's general manager, Mr Heinrich Grafe, 61, says: "These students are brilliant, they are so enthusiastic in what they do.

"In my opinion, nowhere in the world would you see what we have here in a vocational school."

Former ITE graduates make up about 19 of the about 500 employees at Conrad Centennial Singapore. Roughly one-third of them hold leadership positions such as duty manager or director of engineering.

Mr Tong Chong Heong, 66, chief executive of Keppel Offshore & Marine, says that, among other things, ITE graduates have a "good dose of can-do spirit".

On average, the company takes in about 35 fresh ITE graduates every year and more than 1,000 of its 15,000 employees here were formerly from the ITE.

Last year, it was reported that nine out of 10 ITE graduates find jobs within six months. The median starting pay of a post-national service ITE graduate, according to a report last year, is about $1,600 and a fresh ITE graduate, about $1,300.

Mr Bruce Poh, 58, director and chief executive of the ITE, says: "Previously, public perception was as Jack Neo put it in his movie I Not Stupid - 'It's The End'. But we have transformed the image to a stage where the ITE is a good educational pathway."

Watching ITE students "blossom" is "fantastic", he adds.

And one place he has seen them blossom is at the Amber @ West Restaurant in ITE College West, which is a training restaurant for ITE students.

He is especially fond of the beef cheek served there and celebrated his birthday there this year and last year with his wife and four daughters. He pays for all his meals there.

In view of ITE's drastic transformation in the last two decades, Mr Chen's concerns about his son Chow Koon studying in ITE have dissipated.

He visited the campus and found that the facilities were "better than he imagined" and that it was a place where his son would "learn some skills". His elder son, 22, works for the Singapore Armed Forces.

Chow Koon has just completed his first semester in the two-year National ITE Certificate course in food and beverage operations in ITE College West and is gearing up for his next goal.

He is waiting to see how he fares for the four modules he took last semester.

So far, he has scored two Bs. He says: "My results show that I am doing well in school. I am aiming to go to polytechnic. If I can maintain these grades, I might get a chance to study food and beverage there."

cherylw@sph.com.sg