New industry, new career and skills

Yearning to play a role in improving people's lives, Mr Joel Ang homed in on the pharmaceutical and biomedical sectors.

The former distribution centre head of a high-technology firm said: "These industries are strongly supported by the Government, so I saw the long-term prospects and wanted to make the switch while retaining my experience in logistics after 20 years."

But the opportunities that Mr Ang, 44, sought were few and far between and a major stumbling block was his lack of good manufacturing practice (GMP) training. GMP refers to a system for producing quality products and manufacturers must comply with its requirements.

"Whenever someone highlighted possible opportunities every few years, I would try, but people in those industries don't move a lot as they enjoy what they do," said Mr Ang. "Also, firms prefer those already trained in GMP so that they don't have to spend time on teaching the fundamentals."

But his interest never waned.

When the role as head of the replenishment centre at Alcon Manufacturing and Logistics came calling, through the Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) which caters to professionals, managers, executives and technicians, including mid-career switchers, he jumped at the chance.

"With this vehicle (PCP), it gives people outside the industry like me an opportunity," said Mr Ang, who joined Alcon in February this year.

As a PCP trainee in pharmaceuticals manufacturing, Mr Ang has to complete six modules - including one on GMP standards. He has completed four modules so far.

He has to juggle attending classes at Singapore Polytechnic and catching up on work, including making conference calls.

He likens the programme to national service, where the first three months are about letting recruits get a general understanding of how things work before they are assigned to different vocations.

"It serves as a good grounding, and I've learnt to appreciate that GMP compliance is critical because deviations can be fatal to customers or patients. Through hands-on laboratory training, I appreciate that every small step in the manufacturing process is critical to the final product."

While Mr Ang had to pick up new knowledge, he was comforted by the fact that Alcon could tap his logistics experience, which gave him a head start in learning.

"The learning curve was not steep as I had spent many years with DHL, which has customers from different industries, including the medical sector. I visited their plants and know their processes can be detailed and lengthy."

He added: "Other than routine training for my job, such as in performance management, we also have a lot of change management programmes at Alcon."

Mr Ang, who holds an MBA, also had to learn fast to lead a team of 40 people.

"As head of the department, I've had to learn different functions. You have to be diligent and disciplined. My colleagues already know the processes well, and to lead them I've had to catch up and get ahead of them."

Alcon embraces those who step out of their comfort zones - such as Mr Ang, who said he made the right move. "For mid-career switchers like me, going back to school is not the easiest thing. Since I decided to make the switch, I've had to persevere and I knew there would be at least one year of hard work of learning the basics.

"After eight months, I'm still excited because the journey of learning never ends. My senior colleagues who have been here for 10, 20 years are still learning."

Xin Yun

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline 'New industry, new career and skills'. Print Edition | Subscribe