New farming school to develop talent in Singapore's agri-tech sector

Trainees Christine Ping Dodd and Vinodh Menon at NTUC LearningHub's new agri-tech training facility. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng (left) speaking to trainee S. Shagihan at the facility. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - When his business folded in June 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr S. Shagihan, 56, needed to seek new pastures for a living.

Eight years ago, he was keen on a farming business but opted to start a venture in food and beverage automation because he felt opportunities in agriculture were limited.

But Singapore's emphasis on producing its own food since then has rekindled his interest in farming and prompted him to sign up for full-time training in agriculture technology (agri-tech).

Mr Shagihan told The Straits Times: "Singapore was importing everything and there was hardly any land. It was a difficult time to get into farming.

"But now, we are getting more support and space to do farming, and there are more possibilities as a business. I feel it can be a success story."

He is one of 119 trainees in a new agri-tech training facility at 60 Benoi Road, near Joo Koon MRT station, which was launched on Thursday (Sept 16) to develop talent for the industry.

It is part of the national effort led by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) LearningHub to meet Singapore's goal of producing 30 per cent of its nutritional needs by 2030 for the country to become food-resilient.

NTUC LearningHub chairman Eugene Wong said at the launch that training is an important part of ensuring the country's agricultural goals are met.

He said 97 per cent of some 300 survey respondents felt it was important for Singapore to produce its own food.

Almost 90 per cent of respondents not in the agri-tech sector said it is a promising industry for career growth and development, which Mr Wong said was key to the decision to create a training facility.

The six-month programme will teach trainees, over four phases, the basics of growing crops, farming technology, farm operations and automation and business.

They will also be taught how to incorporate artificial intelligence and machine learning into farming operations.

The training was planned in collaboration with sustainable technology firm Netatech to prepare trainees for jobs in agri-tech business, operations management and other specialised roles.

Mr Wong said around 20 trainees from its pioneer programme that ended this month have secured jobs in agriculture and other sectors. The programme started in March, ahead of the official launch.

NTUC LearningHub is also in talks with about five companies to try to secure at least 80 jobs for the current cohort, he added.

All traineeship openings for the next two batches have been filled, said Mr Wong.

Trainees will receive a monthly allowance of up to $1,200 during the full-time programme, which costs $17,880, or $500 for eligible Singaporeans and permanent residents through SGUnited Skills, which can be further waived with SkillsFuture credits.

NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng, who was guest of honour at the launch, said the training facility was part of NTUC's effort to build an ecosystem to support development in Singapore's agriculture sector.

He said: "This is a sunrise industry that we hope answers a national need and new businesses for entrepreneurs."

NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng (right), Netatech CEO and founder David Tan (in white) and deputy CEO (Industry) Michael Fung at the launch of the agri-tech training facility at Benoi Road on Sept 16, 2021. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Ms Christine Ping Dodd, 42, is one of the pending graduates who found a role in the agri-tech industry during her traineeship.

With the help of training partner Netatech, she and five other trainees will pilot a new vertical farming start-up to grow vegetables and herbs in repurposed shipping containers.

They aim to place the containers on vacant land that is awaiting redevelopment, to maximise land use and produce food for nearby residents.

Ms Dodd, who left a senior management role in a tech company, said: "Food is something you can't run away from. I saw the panic in supermarkets during Covid-19 and knew it was important for Singapore to be self-reliant.

"Hopefully, I can make a difference here and contribute meaningfully to Singapore's food security vision."

Those interested can register for NTUC's suite of programmes at the LearningHub website.

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