SINGAPORE - Since he was a child, Muhammad Arfian Mohamed Hanafi has wanted to work with animals. But his parents wanted him to choose a future they believed would offer more security.
Mr Arfian, 23, relented and completed a biotechnology diploma from Singapore Polytechnic, though his desire never went away.
While completing his national service, his best friend, Mr Darren Lim, told him of a junior vet technician vacancy at Allpets & Aqualife Clinic.
Mr Lim, 23, knew its co-owner Frederic Chua and connected Mr Arfian with the clinic.
Mr Arfian said: "When I saw this opportunity, I grabbed it."
His diploma meant he had no skills directly relevant to the veterinary care industry. Thankfully, his attitude won over his soon-to-be bosses.
Dr Winnie Teo - the clinic's other co-owner - was impressed with his honesty and passion.
"He appeared very earnest during the interview, he was very enthusiastic... I didn't feel like I had to second-guess him," Dr Teo said.
When the clinic hired him, it recommended that he join the veterinary care industry's SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programme (ELP), which is taught by Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP).
The one-year programme would allow him to draw a full salary from the clinic while taking night classes at NP to deepen his veterinary knowledge, ending with a specialist diploma in veterinary clinical practice.
It aims to fill the manpower shortage in the pet-related sector by opening doors to those who did not pursue a veterinary-related education.
"He did very well during the interview... We thought, 'Why not give this young man a chance to go for this course?'" said Dr Teo.
Mr Arfian explained why he eagerly took up the offer. "It will give me a complete and better understanding of what I do here so I can become better at my work."
The specialist diploma itself launched last October with 17 students. Seven of them, including Mr Arfian, are ELP participants.
Almost four months in, they are already reaping the benefits.
Ms Enrica Cheng, for instance, is another of Allpets & Aqualife Clinic's employees taking part in the ELP.
"Before (the ELP) I would never intubate the dogs," said the 22-year-old, referring to the act of placing a tube into an anaesthetised animal's windpipe. The tube carries oxygen and anaesthetic gases, keeping the animal asleep but alive during surgery.
"I would be very scared - What if I tear something? Then it'd be my fault."
However, after NP taught her about the dog's internal anatomy, she is more confident.
"I learned... where I can put it (the tube) in."
The nervousness she initially felt might surprise some. Unlike Mr Arfian, she is no rookie and will mark her second year at the clinic next month. Her beginnings are similar to his as she graduated from Republic Polytechnic with a biotechnology diploma.
She felt her lack of veterinary education held her back despite her practical experience, so she joined the ELP.
"I didn't want to be stagnant in terms of knowledge... I thought I could learn more beyond the clinic."
Dr Teo said that putting Ms Cheng and Mr Arfian on the ELP - and paying $650 for each - was the right decision. "I think the ELP has given them some confidence and a better, deeper understanding of what they're doing."
She will increase their pay after they complete the programme.
Clinics who send employees for the ELP also get up to $15,000 in government grants per participant, though Allpets & Aqualife Clinic is getting a lesser amount.
Dr Teo revealed that job applications even spiked after the ELP was introduced, and suspected that these applicants hoped to use her clinic to get into the programme.
It is clear that both the clinic and its employees benefit. And Dr Teo said she would send more employees for the ELP in the future.
And what of Mr Arfian's parents? He initially just told them he was working at "a clinic", and when they found out it was a vet clinic, they were not happy. But knowing the love he has always had for animals, they gradually came to accept it.
Said Mr Arfian: "My mum frequently asks if I have attended to any cute cats, so that's how I know they're okay with it."
As of last August, there were 37 ELPs across 22 sectors in Singapore.