More help needed to deepen competencies of freelance coaches and instructors

NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng (in red) at a dialogue session with the working committee for the formation of the National Instructors and Coaches Association at the NTUC Centre on Aug 13, 2018. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

SINGAPORE - Encouraging freelance coaches and instructors to improve their skills looks like a sound game plan but it's not so easy to carry out, as table tennis coach Toby Cheong knows all too well.

Mr Cheong, 40, attends classes to upgrade his coaching capabilities but each day that he does not train students means a day of potential income lost for him and his family.

He is not alone. The cost of skills training as well as the loss of wages are key reasons why the 5,000 freelance instructors here have little incentive to upskill, said the National Instructors and Coaches Association (Nica) on Wednesday (Feb 20).

Unlike salaried employees, freelancers and contract workers like Mr Cheong, who has taught table tennis for the past 15 years, get little support from their employers for skills training.

"The school does not care; we're not part of the staff and are only here for a few months. If I want to train my own skills, I have to pay for the courses myself and attend them on my own time," said Mr Cheong.

This does not seem at first glance to be a big deal as many schools and private sector clients do not have strict skill requirements for sport coaches or art and music instructors. Schools are the biggest group of employers for coaches and instructors.

But Mr Adrian Chiang, Nica's protem committee president, said this will be a problem when the business environment transforms and the onus to keep up with the changes fall solely on the freelancer.

Nica is addressing this by working with the labour movement and industry stakeholders to develop skills competency frameworks for each occupation, such as fitness trainers, music teachers, sports coaches and art instructors.

They also want to certify experienced freelancers and devise industry benchmarks so service buyers like schools know how skilled a freelancer actually is.

The aim is to allow freelancers to widen their business prospects and be equipped with the right skills.

Mr Chiang, who is a band instructor, said that while the hourly rates of freelance coaches and teachers have gone up slightly over the years in line with inflation, the actual demand has been falling.

"It is not just for my own situation, but across the board, schools are reducing the number of training hours for their respective co-curricular activities, and that translates to lesser wages for coaches and instructors from each client," he told a briefing on Wednesday (Feb 20).

The appearance of "fly-by-night" trainers who compete for contracts through price and not their actual skills has lowered the overall appeal of the freelance industry and sent competent and experienced coaches out of the sector altogether.

Mr Cheong said: "In some cases, the teachers-in-charge who pick which coach to hire aren't concerned about how well that coach can play that sport."

Recent mergers of schools and junior colleges have also reduced the number of assignments available, said National Trades Union Congress assistant director-general Ang Hin Kee, who is also director of its Freelancers and Self-Employed Unit.

"The challenge (for freelancers) is therefore to find other clients to fill up those gaps," added Mr Ang, the Ang Mo Kio GRC MP.

"There are two prongs to this: One, how to find more clients for the same vocation, and two, whether there are other skills that freelancers can acquire ... to deliver other services and have multiple revenue streams."

Raising the competence of freelancers and contract workers to ensure wage sustainability will be a core priority for him.

He will urge the Government to support skills training for this group in the Budget debates next week.

Such support could be in the form of subsidised training fees and clearer contractual terms to ensure that those with certified skills are recognised and priced accordingly.

There are around 200,000 of such workers in the growing gig economy here, which makes up about a tenth of Singapore's workforce.

Mr Ang also encouraged more freelancers to take up prolonged medical leave insurance, which provides a daily cash pay-out if they are hit with injury or illness.

Only around 60 contract workers and freelancers have signed up for prolonged medical leave insurance since its announcement last year, he said.

There is already one claimant - a 38-year-old choral director stricken with retinal detachment that affected his sight. Rather than losing his income, he received a daily cash benefit of $200 per day for 62 days.

"As in all cases, we always think that illnesses and injuries will happen at a later time, and whether you can delay getting insurance to a later period. But it can happen at any time and any situation to freelancers," said Mr Ang.

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