Helping the self-employed upskill and grow their careers

Freelancers like this 46-year-old art instructor have pivoted to virtual coaching with the support of NTUC-affiliated association NICA

A NICA member since October 2019, art education service provider Ho See Kum is thankful for the support, advice and training courses provided by the association during the Covid-19 pandemic and even now.

When you encounter a legal, contractual or any other issue at work as a full-time employee, chances are, you can turn to someone from your company for help or advice.

But if you are one of hundreds of thousands of freelance workers in Singapore – there were about 211,000 freelancers in 2019, according to the Ministry of Manpower – seeking recourse and protection can be tougher as you are pretty much on your own. 

That is, unless you are a member of one of the associations for freelance professionals set up by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). 

Just ask Mr Ho See Kum. The anime fan has been doodling comics ever since he watched the anime Laputa The Castle In The Sky at the age of 17. It sparked his lifelong interest in comics and drawing, which then became a career. In 2002, he started ComixGuru, a cartooning and art education service provider for schools and private institutions.

For 20 years, he has been teaching in more than 50 primary and secondary schools. Some of his flagship courses that are popular in schools include “Rediscover Cartoon Creation” and “Rediscover Comics Making”. 

All was smooth sailing for the 46-year-old, who is married without children, until the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Schools nationwide implemented home-based learning, which meant that Mr Ho could no longer teach art in person.

“There was a lot of uncertainty and I saw a sharp decline in the amount of work. I taught in only one or two schools in 2020. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I could have taken up to five schools or more.” 

Using downtime to upskill 

Thankfully, as a member of the National Instructors & Coaches Association (NICA), one of the various associations for freelancers and self-employed persons under the NTUC umbrella, Mr Ho had no time to idle. The reason? NICA had a wide range of virtual and easily accessible training sessions to sign up for. They were part of the NICA Business Support Network and Resources which were funded by NICA to help coaches and instructors build capabilities such as producing videos so that they could pivot and coach virtually.

“It wasn’t just a few sessions but a full suite of online courses, anything from digital marketing to mindfulness, and they were tailored even for people who weren’t so tech-savvy, like myself,” he says, adding that he acquired a lot of knowledge that he was lacking in during this period. 

He found the courses very useful to his career as they took away his initial fear of technology and, more specifically, his fear of using it to coach his students. The bonus: enjoying a sense of community bonding with other NICA members who were going through the same challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“It eased a lot of mental anxiety just to know that it is okay because everyone is also trying their best to make things work.” 

Even now that things are looking up, Mr Ho, who has encouraged his peers to take up membership, is still grateful for how NICA has played a very supportive role. 

“As a self-employed business owner, I am constantly at the mercy of not being kept up to date about contractual issues and my rights when I sign contracts. You need a strong support group to look out for your basic rights and make sure they are not trampled on, just because you are self-employed. At least, now I know who I can turn to.” 

NICA to protect interests of coaches and instructors

NTUC, through speaking with various groups of coaches and instructors, realised that these individuals faced common challenges such as getting funds to upskill themselves, income insecurity and securing more work opportunities.

In 2019, NICA was formed to be the collective voice for coaches and instructors in the fields of sports, outdoor learning and adventure, visual and performing arts, fitness and wellness, as well as enrichment. The association supports these individuals through programmes and initiatives that focus on strengthening skills, standards, recognition and opportunities.

“NTUC and the Freelancers and Self-Employed Unit (U FSE) recognised the need to represent workers in the gig economy and is playing an active role in advocating and advancing the interests of these workers. Through associations such as NICA, we have initiated discussions with the relevant sector government ministries and agencies on how we can work together to strengthen frameworks and put safeguards in place to support the livelihoods of freelancers under their purview,” says Ms Yeo Wan Ling, adviser to the National Taxi Association, National Private Hire Vehicles Association and National Delivery Champions Association.

NICA members are engaged by the Ministry of Education, the People’s Association and the Health Promotion Board, for instance, to carry out co-curricular activities and enrichment programmes in schools or recreation activities for the public. 

Members pay just $117 a year to enjoy training benefits of up to $250 per calendar year, complimentary short courses and workshops on topics such as personal data protection and student engagement.

For this year’s May Day, members can also enjoy a variety of exclusive privileges, including discounts of up to 50 per cent at relevant attractions, restaurants as well as lifestyle goods and wellness outlets.

Says Ms Jean See, director of U FSE and executive secretary of NICA: “Being a self-employed person or freelancer does not mean having to work alone. NTUC-affiliated associations like NICA, and NTUC departments like U FSE, are set up to provide the right resources and connections to keep your career as a self-employed person or freelancer sustainable. We would like to encourage more self-employed persons and freelancers to join our associations so that we can help them with a stronger collective voice."

Apart from freelancers and self-employed workers, NTUC also supports all other groups of workers, including professionals, managers and executives, as well as rank-and-file workers, regardless of gender and age.

Find out more about how NTUC supports all workers and sign up as a member now.

Read other inspiring stories of workers here.

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