Millennial plumbers, electricians and movers trade office jobs to be their own bosses

Unperturbed by the stigma, some millennials are taking on trades, becoming electricians and plumbers - and their own boss

The work can be hard, dirty and, sometimes, downright disgusting.

There is usually no air-conditioning and you have to stand for hours. If you are not careful, there is also, occasionally, a real risk of getting electrocuted.

Welcome to the world of the tradesmen - electricians, plumbers, carpenters, air-con technicians and painters.

The work is not glamorous. Look around and you will see that most tradesmen here are in their 40s and 50s.

But some millennials - bucking the "strawberry generation" label - are choosing certain trades as their career, unfazed by the stigma, hard work and, sometimes, foul smell.

Of course, there are those who choose this path because they have no other options. But there are others who willingly pick up wrenches and pliers.

Some say they enjoy the flexible hours allowed by such work. Others like being their own boss. Yet others say they simply like helping to solve other people's problems - from faulty wiring to clogged toilets.

Mr Loh Yong Sheng, 29, a full- time air-con technician who works for his father's company C & L Airconditioning Works, says: "To be honest, the money is good. On average, I can make $200 to $300 a day, working for six to seven hours.

"I can also decide my own working hours and this lets me spend the rest of my time looking after my family." The Singaporean is married and his wife is seven months pregnant.

As for the dirt and grime, well, this is something one can get used to, they say.

Electrician Nick Yeo, 31, says he can sometimes be covered in debris while working.

The Malaysia-born Singapore permanent resident often cuts holes in walls to create power sockets. He also balances on a ladder, arms raised to the ceiling, to install a fan or a chandelier.

"If you cannot handle mess and dirt, then this is not the job for you."

Mr Erman Tan, 53, president of the Singapore Human Resources Institute, says young people may not view such jobs with the same level of stigma as older generations.

He says: "In general, young people are very open-minded. And some aspects of such jobs can be very attractive to the young.

"They can be their own boss. And they can feel a sense of meaning and instant appreciation from the customers for their work."

Mr David Leong, 47, managing director of recruitment firm PeopleWorldwide Consulting, notes that these days, some white-collar jobs such as credit analysts in banks and insurance companies are at risk of being replaced by automation and artificial intelligence.

"In contrast, blue-collar technical roles are in high demand. And if their pay increases - due to fewer people available to perform the job - I think the public's perception of such tradesmen will improve."

Human-resource experts say that tradesmen currently earn on average between $1,800 and $3,000 a month, depending on their skills and experience.

A tradesman's overall income, however, largely depends on the number of jobs he can secure and perform, experts qualify.

ServisHero, an online marketplace for home services that started in 2015, has partnered several local tradesmen to help them find customers and grow their businesses.

Mr Jethro Wang, 25, its regional marketing lead, says: "There is a rising awareness that blue-collar jobs can be highly lucrative - often paying more on an hourly basis than an office job.

"Because of this, I think there will be a higher demand for this line of work among younger people in the future."

ServisHero's app - available for free on iOS and Android - allows users to access the services of thousands of service providers in the region. In Singapore, 20 per cent of its providers are younger than 35.

But Mr Tan warns: "We don't know if these millennials will really stay in the trade in the long run.

"After they do it for a few years and the novelty wears out, they might just choose to move on to something else."

Back pain part of being a mover

Mr Fadlin Ilham's business provides wrapping and transportation services for people wanting to move house and for businesses wanting to transport goods or machinery.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

If Mr Fadlin Ilham, 31, could do it all again, he would not have dropped out of his Higher National Institute of Technical Education course in precision engineering when he was 16.

Instead, he would have endured the bullies who were giving him a hard time at school and finished his course.

The Singaporean, who has N- level qualifications and is now a full-time mover, says: "In a way, I am forced to do such work because of my academic qualifications or lack of them. But since it has happened, I want to work hard and make the best of the situation."

As a mover, he could work for other people and draw a salary as a contract worker. But he has struck out to be his own boss.

Last year, he set up moving business FHS, which provides wrapping and transportation services for people wanting to move house and for businesses transporting goods or machinery.

He moves the items in his Nissan van, which can carry more than 1,000kg in a single trip. For example, it can transport a queen-size mattress, a dining table or a bookshelf. Among the unusual items he has ferried are a large empty rectangular fish tank, a cat and a rabbit.

"The animals were placed in cages before the move. And I made sure a fan was blowing at them throughout the journey so that they had enough air."

He usually does the major lifting himself, although he also has five part-timers to help when the workload gets too heavy, literally.

The 75kg, 1.75m-tall man says: "In this line, back pain is unavoidable because of all the lifting. But the pain mostly disappears after a day or two. And I like to think this lifting has helped keep me healthy."

His biggest gripe is transporting potted plants. Last month, he recalls, he moved 12 from one house to another. "The customer did not clean the base of the pots, so the soil and water got all over my carpet. I tried cleaning up the mess with soap and fabric fresheners. But until now, there is still a stain."

He charges $96 for a typical job - with him and another helper working for two hours with the van.

He can also help pack items into boxes - each box costs $2.50 - and bubble-wraps them for an additional $15. He usually earns $30 to $300 a day.

He has five children - three boys and two girls - aged one to 17, and is married to Ms Raihana Imberan, 41, a nurse. His mother is a housewife in her 60s and his late father used to work as a parking attendant.

He says: "I'm quite satisfied with my job for now. The money is good. It is not that dirty. And the task is quite simple - just moving and driving things around.

"But I know I will eventually become too old or too weak to continue doing this job."

As a back-up plan, he has recently been trying to get involved in other businesses and investments. "I cannot change the past, but I can do my best to prepare for the future."

Electrician-plumbers with social media presence

Benetton (left) and Royston Chan started their electrical and plumbing business four years ago. PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

When brothers Royston and Benetton Chan started out as electricians and plumbers, they found it hard to convince clients and staff that they knew what they were doing. Their youth was a liability.

Benetton, 23, says: "Most of our clients expect electricians to be in their 40s or 50s. When they answer the door only to see our young faces, it is not unexpected that they think we are not experienced enough."

That has resulted in customers "watching us very closely", adds Royston, 27.

"The only way for us to convince them is to get the task done confidently and properly."

The brothers, both Singaporean and graduates of Ngee Ann Polytechnic, do not lack experience. Their father, Mr William Chan, 60, is also an electrician and plumber. They have been learning the ins and outs of the trade from him since they were in secondary school.

Their mother, Madam Carol Ong, 48, is a clinic assistant. They have no other siblings.

Four years ago, the brothers started their own company, Sparkflow Electrical & Plumbing Services. They can install anything from ceiling fans and lights to sinks and water heaters.

On busy days, they can do 10 to 15 jobs, which can take up to 20 hours. The rate for each job starts at $30 and can go into thousands of dollars, depending on complexity.

The brothers, both bachelors, have six freelance workers, aged 42 to 50, to handle the extra work. They decline to say how much the company makes, revealing only that they each draw a monthly salary of $1,000.

Royston, who has a diploma in electronic and computer engineering, says: "We put a lot of the profits back into the company because we want to grow and diversify the business."

Since last month, they have started engaging a carpenter to create custom-made furniture for their clients. In the future, they aim to venture into interior design and increase the scale of their operations.

In true millennial form, their company has a website, a Facebook page and an Instagram account, which help them publicise their services and get jobs.

Benetton says: "We also use the Internet to get components or parts quickly, as well as get competitive rates for our customers."

He has a diploma in business and social enterprise and is pursuing a bachelor of business (economics and finance) degree awarded by RMIT University, at SIM Global Education. He says: "I know I could have easily found a better-paying job working in a business or social enterprise.

"But I won't be able to have as flexible a schedule as I do now.

"It is also great being your own boss and being able to own what you do."

Unclogging disgusting toilets without flinching

Helping customers fix their bathroom issues gives handyman- plumber Pravin Rajendiran a sense of pride. PHOTO: MARCUS TAN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Singaporean handyman Pravin Rajendiran, 23, has seen it all - disgusting clumps of hair, sinks and toilet bowls caked with grime and pipes clogged with grease accumulated over many years.

But the plumber and electrician takes it all in his stride.

He picked up the trade in his secondary school days, following his electrician-handyman father, Mr Ramasamy Rajendiran, now in his 60s, on jobs during the school holidays.

The younger Mr Rajendiran, whose daily work now involves unclogging pipes and installing taps, toilet bowls, showers and water heaters, recalls: "The first time I worked in an old, unkempt bathroom, I felt so grossed out. The sight was so nasty, the smell so horrible."

But eventually, he got used to it.

"It is just part of the job. Nowadays, my customers sometimes run out of the bathroom because they are too disgusted by the insides of their pipes. But I don't flinch one bit."

The bachelor has a National Institute of Technical Education Certificate in mechanical technology.

His mother, Mrs Rajendiran, is a civil servant in her 50s. He has three siblings - a sister, 30, who works as a personal assistant; a brother, 29, who works in a bank; and another brother, 28, who owns a contracting company.

On average, he makes $60 to $100 a day. For example, he charges $60 to $80 to clear a clogged toilet. Such a task might take only an hour to complete and, sometimes, he encounters customers who think the bill is too high.

"I explain that the bill includes my transportation costs, tools - wrenches, pliers, plungers - miscellaneous items such as filters and tapes, as well as the service itself."

Generally, they understand, he says. In fact, 10 to 20 per cent of his clients are repeat customers.

In the past, he has done odd jobs and has also tried his hand at being a bartender and a mover.

"Somehow, those jobs didn't feel right to me. I guess I am just a very hands-on guy who likes to help people."

Last year, he started his own company, Handy Movers & Contractor. Besides plumbing services, it also provides electrical, handyman, painting, cleaning and moving services for homes and businesses.

For example, he has helped customers fix the broken leg of a sofa, repair door hinges as well as install rollers for a sliding door.

He does most of the tasks himself, but also engages other freelance workers to help him for more demanding jobs.

He says: "I can't see myself in any other trade. I love seeing the look of relief on my customers' faces when the job is done."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 16, 2017, with the headline 'Young and handy on the job'. Subscribe