IN FOCUS: 'Bro, we didn’t study' – the blue-collar, specialist workers earning about S$5k and more
Renewed interest in the pay gap between ITE and university graduates has sparked discussions on whether Singapore can ever stop pegging salary to paper qualifications.
SINGAPORE: A chance conversation about eight years ago presented Mr Thiban Mahaindran with a solution to almost triple his salary instantly – without going back to school.
The Institute of Technical Education (ITE) graduate was a mechanic earning about S$1,800 a month when he had a casual chat with the prime mover driver whose truck he had inspected.
The driver found out that Mr Thiban, then 21, possessed a Class 3 and 4 driving licence. He told his mechanic that the latter meant he was qualified to become a prime mover driver – a job that could earn him S$5,000 per month.
Mr Thiban quit his job the next day and embarked on his career as a prime mover driver.
Now 29, he is the Head of Transportation at Asian Worldwide Services (AWS) Singapore and manages a fleet of 10 prime mover drivers. They are all Singaporean and all younger than him – an anomaly in an industry struggling to attract young locals.
Even though he doesn’t drive as much these days, he remembered raking in S$9,700 in one month when he drove every day. It was more than five times his salary less than eight years ago.
Companies who spoke to CNA shared that average prime mover drivers today can earn around S$5,000 and above once they gain experience. But many people remain unaware of the competitive pay this blue-collar job commands.
GOOD PAY, OPPORTUNITIES FOR PROGRESSION
Such figures may raise eyebrows, not least since the divergence in starting pay for university, polytechnic and ITE graduates has been recently thrust into the spotlight.
Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong noted at the Singapore Perspectives Conference in January that the median starting salary for university graduates is now about twice that of ITE graduates and 1.5 times that of polytechnic graduates.
Speaking at the conference by the National University of Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies, Mr Wong said workers in Singapore should embrace a broader definition of what counts as a good job and recognise skills and competencies, instead of "overly" focusing on paper qualifications.
Among prime mover companies, drivers rely on trip incentives, which means their salary varies every month. The incentive amount is also not set in stone. Those who spoke to CNA said it is normal to collect more than S$150 in incentives before 5pm every day.
AWS offers its drivers S$1,500 as a base salary, in addition to paying any car park charges for their truck, among other benefits, said Mr Thiban.
One of Mr Thiban’s drivers, Mr Prem Kumar, 28, shared that he has been steadily earning around $5,000 before CPF contributions since he started driving six years ago.
Another driver at AWS, Mr Meghan, who declined to give his full name, had just begun driving a few months ago. But the 21-year-old estimated at the end of December last year that his salary for the month would hit S$4,200 before CPF contributions.
Like Mr Thiban, their highest qualification is an ITE certificate.
The salary range is similarly competitive at established haulage firm, Bok Seng Logistics, whose drivers also have the skills to transport out-of-gauge cargo, which is odd-sized and heavy, such as oil rigs and MRT tunnels.
Its transportation manager Ben Tan broadly shared that a new and inexperienced driver “should be able” to take home about S$2,500 to S$3,500 as long as they accept every job that’s assigned to them.
A local driver, once he gains experience, could easily earn within the range of S$3,500 to S$4,500, “and they get more than that quite often as well,” the 40-year-old said.
In terms of career progression, drivers told CNA that they don’t relish moving into an office role, even if it means getting a promotion. But there are also some like Mr Thiban who eventually become transport controllers, and even the occasional former driver or controller who starts their own logistics company.
HIGHLY SPECIALISED ROLE
Theirs is not the only blue-collar job boasting competitive salaries.
A survey by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) in 2012 found that relatively new crane operators can take home S$4,000 a month including overtime pay and allowances, with more experienced operators fetching S$6,000 to S$7,000 a month.
Based on Occupational Wage Survey data in 2021, the figures have largely remained the same. BCA told CNA that the salary of an experienced crane operator ranges from S$4,200 to S$6,500 a month.
But one crane operator's salary has been slightly better than average. Speaking to CNA in Mandarin, 60-year-old Lee Lian Soon from Bok Seng Logistics estimated that he could earn up to S$8,000 to S$9,000 a month before CPF contributions, and even hit S$10,000 in a good month.
This amount includes a base pay of about S$4,000 and added incentives, depending on the number of assignments, the duration of each assignment and the type of crane he needs to operate.
Mr Lee, who was formerly in the renovation industry, enrolled in a BCA course at 47, qualifying him to be a mobile crane operator. He now operates a 200-tonne mobile crane, but can handle his company's biggest at a 750-tonne capacity, should the need arise.
His most satisfying projects involve lifting expensive items – an MRT carriage, a helicopter, a submarine’s periscope, a container with two Ferrari cars and even an old plane that was repurposed for an exhibition – as these require a high level of skill.
“You need to control the vehicle, not let it control you. … It might look like just a game console, but you need to have experience. For example, one MRT carriage is a few million dollars; if you’re not careful, your company needs to pay (for any damage),” he explained.
A crane operator therefore must watch his temper and remain calm, added Mr Lee.
"Because things are heavy and workers are below working, you must prioritise their safety because they can die (if a mistake is made)," he said.
"You must have confidence and love the job. You cannot be in it just for the money. You must be willing to work hard, dare to climb into different vehicles. This is the only way to learn."
Once an MRT carriage is lifted onto the back of a prime mover truck, the driver tasked to transport the cabin also requires a unique set of driving skills. It is unlike transporting, say, a standard container.
This is all in a day’s work for Mr Daniel Lim, a 42-year-old driver at Bok Seng Logistics. He has ferried MRT carriages and once transported “the longest concrete beam in Singapore” with a senior driver.
“The concrete beam is those used in the expressway. You have to secure the beam (onto your truck); when you travel with the (auxiliary) police escorts on the road, you have to make sure the traffic is suitable for you to turn or travel. Then when you reach the site, you need to know how to unload,” he shared.
But the most important skill behind the wheel, according to Mr Lim, is looking out for the safety of other people following his vehicle.
Asked whether he has dealt with discrimination due to his job, or because a secondary school education is his highest qualification, he did not seem bothered. He appreciates the importance of his job.
“I won't say that people need to respect me, because I just (focus on doing) my part for the logistics and construction line to fulfil everything. Everybody has an important part to play in the company,” he said.
Mr Lee, on the other hand, stressed that crane operators should be seen as professionals.
“Not anyone can do this job. We are the only ones with the licence. Our salaries are quite high, because this is a specialist job. It can’t be that companies give you only a few thousand dollars. Yet, sometimes they can’t even find people to hire,” he said, echoing the same issue that prime mover companies face.
ON THE JOB CHALLENGES
Prime mover drivers and crane operators admitted that their unique job challenges tend to put off potential candidates. These include odd hours, physical demands and heightened risk.
CNA accompanied AWS drivers Mr Prem and Mr Meghan for a day in December to better understand the challenges in their job.
Although the day started at 8am for Mr Prem, he is used to 12-hour shifts that begin as early as 2am. His first assignment was something he had done countless times: Pick up and drop off an empty container.
It seemed straightforward enough, but with a container on the back of his truck, he must travel slower. If his pickup and drop-off points are at opposite ends of the island, this means more time spent travelling. And queueing at the yard to drop off the container can sometimes take a couple of hours, which further eats into the time he could spend clocking in more trips.
“And on the road, motorbikers like to lane split. On my part, I am okay, I am still in the lane. I will watch out for them. But I feel scared for them,” he added.
Mr Meghan likewise expressed concern for other motorists. He shared that prime mover drivers have “too many blindspots” from behind the wheel, yet “some bikers like to squeeze into the small gap” beside their vehicle.
“If we bang them, we won’t be damaged, but they will likely be squashed. So I tell my brother, who drives, that if he sees a heavy vehicle on the road, just give way. Don’t take the risk,” he said.
Additionally, the haulage industry never stops working, which can be a double-edged sword.
Mr Meghan’s least favourite part of the job is having to work six days a week. The 21-year-old said that while people his age would typically be headed out on Friday and Saturday nights, he has “no more teenage life” as he is currently focused on earning more money.
“The sad thing about this industry is that the port never sleeps," added Mr Alvin Ea, CEO and co-founder of Haulio, a “digital haulier” that matches containers with trucking and haulage companies.
"During the long weekends, new year’s, it’s still running. The containers are still moving around, because they power the global trade. But it is (somewhat) recession-proof – that’s one advantage of being a truck driver.”
For crane operator Mr Lee, the line is clear: His job comes first.
“You are on standby 24 hours. Once you get an assignment, you must take it. If you want to be an operator, you must be ready. You must communicate with your family properly about when you might need to go off for work, including on weekends or holidays,” he said.
DEALING WITH STIGMA
These challenges only reinforce the underlying stigma around blue-collar work in Singapore, significantly impeding the industry from attracting young locals.
Mr Wong had said at the Singapore Economic Policy Forum in October last year that society places insufficient value on “hands-on” and “heart” work. The former tends to encompass technical roles, while the latter often deals with service and community care roles.
Haulio’s Mr Ea, whose experience managing drivers in his own family business Hub Logistics influenced him to build his company, thinks the stigma has less to do with misconceptions about the job’s salary or career progression. Instead, it stems from a “lack of understanding and awareness” about the industry at all.
Even though a prime mover driver is a “specialist job” that requires unique skill sets, they are “still generically treated as a truck driver”, the 35-year-old said.
The stigma has resulted in an ageing workforce, he suggested, estimating the average age of drivers to be 55, with some even hitting 70.
As many from the older generation in general may not possess paper qualifications, he noted that this could present as a lack of education within the industry, deepening the stigma against blue-collar work.
Similarly, Mr Tan from Bok Seng Logistics estimated that younger drivers account for “less than 5 to 10 per cent” in his decade within the haulage industry.
“The common impression that laymen will have is that such jobs are for less educated people, the salary range might not pay well, and it’s a ‘sweat’ job. So it’s getting challenging for employers like us to engage local drivers,” the transportation manager said.
If someone young finds themselves out of a job, they would usually become a private hire vehicle driver as it provides “a nicer environment” and “it’s flexible”, he added.
“You will definitely be required to work for a certain length of working hours as a prime mover driver. It’s the nature of the job; this can’t be helped. This makes it quite hard for us, because a lot of Singaporeans, especially younger generations, are looking for work-life balance.”
To address hiring concerns, Bok Seng Logistics is looking into “restructuring the salary package and other benefits for drivers”, including seeking assistance from various Government agencies.
Mr Ea takes a different approach with Haulio, seeing digitisation as a way to “do more in this very archaic industry”. It is a crucial step for the haulage industry to attract younger folks, such as those in their 20s and 30s.
“The pains that we really had back then was that we really did not (have) technology at all. We were using a lot of manual processes, pen and paper, to handle a lot of work,” he recalled.
Meanwhile, BCA highlighted that crane operators will "continue to be in demand in the industry as the workforce ages and the industry continues to support housing developments and provision of public amenities, such as hospitals and transport infrastructure, to meet the needs and enhance the quality of life in Singapore".
The majority of such jobs require the applicants to have O-Level or Higher Nitec qualifications, the authority said.
Addressing the issue of wage differences among graduates in Parliament on Tuesday (Feb 7), Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said that various Government agencies, including the Ministry of Manpower, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Trade and Industry were working together.
“There are ongoing efforts in partnership with companies and we are also working on new initiatives to address the difference in wages. It is important we narrow these differences to ensure social cohesion is not impacted,” said Dr Tan.
“Success will require the buy-in from everyone in society to do our part to recognise and value one another, and embrace a broader definition of meritocracy.”
All the same, ensuring competitive salaries might not be a quick fix to eradicating stigma. In his speech at the Singapore Economic Policy Forum, Mr Wong had said: “For many people, wages are just one part of this debate – respect and dignity matter equally, if not more.”
Yet, for many, wages are tied to respect and dignity.
PRIDE AND PASSION
Those who spoke to CNA expressed pride in their job, partly because their salary levelled the playing field with some of their white-collar counterparts.
“Last time, people liked to judge our job. Bro, we didn’t study (for a) degree, but I’m very sure my drivers are earning the same as (some) degree holders. And because of our strong salary, we get (bank) loans easily,” said AWS’ Mr Thiban.
His driver Mr Prem acknowledged it is “the normal, standard myth” that drivers don’t earn much, but remains indifferent to the misconception.
“People can talk, but at the end of the day, we are the ones enjoying the salary,” he said.
Mr Meghan had a similar viewpoint, but is more concerned about saving money than what other people think.
“When people see the trucks, they immediately think it’s driven by hooligans. But for us, our truck is the one that’s putting food on the table; my licence is my rice bowl,” he said.
Others downplayed the significance of salary, highlighting the specialist nature of the job as a source of pride.
“(Prime mover drivers) know that they are playing an essential role in the industry. And usually, if you are an experienced driver, you should not be afraid of not getting a job in Singapore. It can be as fast as if I leave this company today, another company will instantly hire me. It’s even more secure than maybe (an office job),” said Mr Tan from Bok Seng Logistics.
“The demand is very big, but the supply is very small, very limited. That’s what makes them proud of their job.”
He pointed out that the skills they gain from manoeuvring oversized cargo are “all experiences that cannot be stolen, cannot be taken away”. Such skills will “always be in them”.
“Within the drivers’ community, there’s a huge sense of pride in the work they’re doing. But some do feel they’re not being respected for the work. In fact, it’s laborious, it’s tough. As much as possible, we try to educate,” added Haulio’s Mr Ea.
“That recognition ... I think can help to encourage more people to be interested in being a prime mover driver.”
Educating people about life as a crane operator has garnered one man a following on TikTok. Declining to give his real name, Fadli goes by the handle @sgtowercrane.
He operates an 18-tonne flat top saddle jib tower crane at a construction site, where he documents bird's eye views of Central Singapore from 180m above ground.
He often receives questions from people who are curious about his daily routine. These include how he goes to the toilet (he pees into a bottle), whether he receives a five-figure salary (it is “not what you think”, he said), what happens if he orders food delivery (site management hooks the food onto his crane for him to pull up) and how he gets to the top of the crane (lift and ladder safety).
Fadli, who is in his 40s, had applied for a BCA course to become a crane operator. He regrets not knowing about the course or taking up the trade earlier.
“I think it’s how you see the job – and I don’t see it that way. There are many opportunities out there. Maybe try to think out of the box,” he said in response to stigma against blue-collar work.
“It’s something that I chose to stay relevant based on what’s in demand, to get every opportunity available, get better pay and make sure it’s sufficient to put food on the table. That’s crucial.”
But he doesn’t sugarcoat the reality either. Sometimes, he works up to 12 hours a day, including overtime.
“It’s not easy. Just imagine being isolated from people. You’re in the cabin for a very long period of time. That’s the reason you have to make yourself comfortable. So whatever makes you happy, bring up a radio if you want,” he told CNA.
Meanwhile, Mr Thiban scaled the career ladder with the support of past and present bosses who “always support youngsters” and who had no qualms about taking in the young drivers whom he recommended.
When he was promoted by his previous boss, he remembered questioning the decision, since he didn’t have a degree.
“My boss said he thinks I deserve it. I said I feel like other companies have people with a degree. But my boss said, ‘Do they know what to do or not? If a tyre is punctured, do they know who to call?’”, he recalled.
Prime mover drivers usually have their “own tyre man” near the location their vehicle breaks down, rather than call EMAS recovery for such issues, he explained.
As a boss now himself, Mr Thiban also hopes to believe in his drivers the way others did in him. He told CNA about a driver who was deemed lazy by his previous company because he wasn’t able to wake up for morning shifts. So he allowed the driver to take on the night shift.
That driver, he noted, is now one of AWS’ highest earners.
“No one is stupid, no one is lazy. We have to hear what their problem is, and then we see if we can find a solution for them. I believe every problem has a solution,” he said.
“During my secondary school and ITE time, I was a very naughty person. But my teachers talked to me nicely. I feel like you should talk to a person nicely so maybe they can change,” he added.
"Without my drivers, I wouldn’t be here. They are our pillars.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated following a clarification by the Building and Construction Authority on the salary range for an experienced crane operator.