The Big Read: Overcoming their scepticism, jobseekers find ray of hope in traineeships amid gloomy job market
Trainees under the national SGUnited Traineeships Programme had their doubts about the scheme but were assuaged once they started working though some say they still have burning questions about job prospects and fair treatment.
SINGAPORE: Polytechnic graduate Andrew Lee was initially sceptical when he was offered a government-backed traineeship with a logistics firm in June.
With the Government co-funding 80 per cent of his training allowance, and the company footing the remainder of the bill, he was afraid that the firm might have hired him out of convenience.
“Even if you’re not very well-versed in what you’re doing, (the company) wouldn’t mind because they don’t pay much, so that’s my concern,” the 24-year-old said.
However, almost two months into his year-long stint, his fears have proven unfounded, by his own admission. The firm has been guiding him closely and helping him learn new skills, and it also intends to convert him to a full-timer should he continue to perform well, he said.
Applications for the inaugural SGUnited Traineeships Programme started on Jun 1. As of Aug 17, over 2,100 host organisations across both public and private sectors have been approved to offer more than 16,500 traineeship vacancies.
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So far, more than 1,000 trainees have been placed on the programme, said spokespersons from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and Workforce Singapore (WSG) in response to queries.
Like Mr Lee, other trainees under the national traineeship programme admitted that they had various doubts initially about the scheme. However, all these were assuaged once they started working, they said.
Mr Lim Jia Khee, currently a trainee with UOB bank, said that he was apprehensive at first since his allowance would be lower than the income from a full-time role.
“Personally, there are definitely moments you feel like you should be making more in the (job) market,” said the 26-year-old. However, after more than a month into the traineeship, he is now able to see the possible long-term prospects of such an opportunity.
“If I were to look at the brighter side, I would not be able to (enter this industry) if not for the SGUnited Traineeships programme,” he said. “In the long haul, it’s (about) skill sets and exposure, which is the silver lining.”
The programme was first announced by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat when he unveiled the Resilience Budget in March. It was the second of four Budgets to help the nation cope with the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Heng, who is also the Finance Minister, had announced then that a total of 8,000 traineeship opportunities would be supported by WSG. The figure was expanded to 21,000 traineeships when he unveiled the Fortitude Budget in May.
The SGUnited Traineeships Programme aims to support those who have recently graduated or will soon be graduating from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), polytechnics, universities and other private educational institutions to “take up traineeship opportunities across various sectors”, according to WSG’s website.
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The traineeships - which Manpower Minister Josephine Teo likened to “a sturdy umbrella amidst the downpour” - initially had a maximum duration of 12 months, but this was adjusted to nine months starting from Jul 29.
The intent of the change was to “ensure that traineeships are not excessively long so that companies do not inadvertently view them as a substitution for full-time hiring, but yet of sufficient duration to enable fresh and recent graduates to have meaningful traineeship experiences”, said a WSG spokesperson.
The spokesperson added that traineeship positions lasting more than nine months that were approved prior to Jul 29 are allowed to proceed.
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FROM DELIVERING FOOD TO DEVELOPING SOFTWARE
Before he became a trainee with a logistics and warehousing firm, Mr Andrew Lee, 24, worked as a food delivery rider for a month. From May to June, he was working four times a week, four to eight hours a day, earning about S$800.
In July, he began a 12-month stint as a software development assistant specialist trainee with Yang Kee Logistics.
His current project involves developing software that can help to coordinate the transport of cargo and goods. This beats having to cycle door to door in sweltering heat to deliver food, said the Republic Polytechnic graduate.
He added that he would have continued with the food delivery job had he not chanced upon the traineeship on the MyCareersFuture.sg job portal.
He noted that “you don’t really learn much” when delivering food, but in his current role, he gets to learn meaningful skills.
If he had carried on as a food delivery rider, he admitted that it would “probably affect” his job prospects.
“Employers would think: ‘Why weren’t you employed (full-time) for this long period of time?’”
While he now appreciates the traineeship at Yang Kee, he said he did wonder at first whether the opportunity was too good to be true.
“I don’t really know what to expect, what is the job like, what would the environment be,” he said.
He was also aware that the company had no contractual obligation to retain the trainees beyond their stints.
“The Government pays 80 per cent (of the traineeship allowance) then the company only pays 20 per cent,” said Mr Lee, referring to his initial doubts about the programme. “Of course they would want to hire (trainees) because they pay very little to them.”
As a polytechnic graduate, Mr Lee receives an allowance of S$1,800 a month as a trainee.
“Even if you’re not very well-versed in what you’re doing, they wouldn’t mind because they don’t pay much, so that’s my (initial) concern,” he added.
However, such concerns were quickly allayed when his traineeship started. The company assured Mr Lee that the trainees will learn the relevant skills to prepare them for a potential full-time role.
His supervisor, Mr Lim Chee Keong, said Mr Lee’s role will not just be confined to the coding aspects of software development. He will also be involved in other areas such as communicating with end-users and setting up the infrastructure to support the firm’s applications.
Mr Lim, who is a senior manager in software development, said that the firm has hired two other trainees for its food sector, both of whom are also viewed as potential full-timers.
“We are looking for a long-term prospect for (Mr Lee), so we will definitely be giving him opportunities to grow,” he added.
With long-term employment in mind, Mr Lee aims to put his best foot forward.
“I feel like the company will really nurture me and after one year, (I don’t feel) like they will just throw me away,” he said. “I will just do my best … show my manager what I’m capable of.”
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DEVELOPING BUSINESS FOR A START-UP
Between April and June, when Singapore was in circuit breaker mode to curb the coronavirus spread, Ms Bian Yue applied for about 100 jobs in marketing and business management, hoping to land a full-time role. Most of the companies did not even respond.
This was not the first time that the 23-year-old had to grapple with setbacks in her job search under the COVID-19 shadow.
Ms Bian had initially planned to start her first job in Australia, having completed her major in digital media at the University of Queensland in December last year.
However, the COVID-19 situation “got really bad really quickly” and she was unable to secure a full-time job Down Under. She returned to Singapore in March.
Of the few companies here which responded to her applications, one was a start-up, Novocall. The call automation software company offered Ms Bian a traineeship as a business development executive in early June.
The role requires her to engage with potential business partners, as well as make sales to clients.
“I’m not being spoon-fed everything,” said Ms Bian of her traineeship. “I’m expected to figure things out by myself.”
But when she needs help, the start-up’s founder, Mr Huang Jing Jie, will connect Ms Bian to external mentors to help her refine the business strategies.
With the leeway which she has been given, along with the nature of her tasks, Ms Bian feels that her traineeship is “as vigorous as a full-time role”.
She works full-time hours from 9am to 6pm. As a university graduate, she is paid an allowance of S$2,500 a month.
When asked why she did not settle for a full-time role that could provide her with more stability and higher pay - even though she had secured interviews for full-time roles - Ms Bian said that a stable job was currently not her priority.
“As long as it fulfils the kind of job scope I am looking for, I am happy to go for either (a traineeship or a full-time job)... it really boils down to what I will learn and the opportunities and projects I try to create for myself.
“As long as they are relevant and I explain (my experiences) well enough to my next employer, I think it makes me just as employable as everybody else,” said Ms Bian.
The trainees whom Novocall hired - three so far - were recruited on the basis that they could potentially be full-time staff after completing their 12-month stints, said Mr Huang, 27.
“We came into the traineeship (programme) with the expectation of (wanting) to hire full-timers … so the traineeship is basically a better way for us to evaluate and train our trainees before they actually become full-time.
“We really need full-timers in the future, and we would rather convert a full-timer who has already been with the company for one year rather than (hire someone) who is totally fresh,” he added.
As for Ms Bian, she is adopting a “see-how” attitude and will remain flexible, regardless of whether she gets a full-time conversion in the near future.
“I am open to all opportunities (as) I can’t see so far ahead,” she said. “(But) it’s definitely something I want to continue doing in the future.”
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GETTING A JOB IN HIS FAVOURITE MARITIME INDUSTRY
Since young, Mr Luqmanul Yusof has always wanted to be part of the maritime industry, just like eight of his extended family members who used to regale him with their stories about working at ports and in cargo ships.
The 23-year-old graduated with a degree in maritime business and logistics from Plymouth University in the United Kingdom earlier this year, and had set his sights on fulfilling his childhood ambition. Then COVID-19 struck, and the maritime industry was hard hit by disruptions to the global supply chains.
Still, Mr Luqmanul was adamant about joining the maritime trade, and had applied for about 10 jobs in the industry since the end of May.
“All (the companies) didn’t get back to me,” he said.
He then chanced upon a SGUnited traineeship opportunity with Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), a maritime services company.
As a BSM trainee, he is getting S$2,500 a month in allowance, which is lower than what a full-time job in the industry commands. But Mr Luqmanul does not mind, given the limited job opportunities.
“Currently it’s quite hard to land a (full-time) position, so I will just take up any opportunities for me to gain experience.”
Although he started the traineeship only in July, Mr Luqmanul is already entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that 28 cargo vessels are properly certified, and taking care of issues such as purchasing of spares and provisions.
For instance, he has to email ship captains to inform them of the certification status of the vessels or call them for more urgent matters such as conducting security tests - tasks that he was not taught in school. Whenever he is unsure of anything, his manager will step in to help, Mr Luqmanul said.
“My manager is teaching me … he wants me to learn rather than just asking me to do (the task).”
Mr Luqmanul has no doubts as to whether these skills are relevant to a potential full-time role, as the firm has given its trainees a training plan, which for him consists of three stages with different learning objectives.
BSM’s managing director Raymond Peter said that at the end of each stage, trainees will be asked to give feedback on how the firm has conducted the traineeship, as well as receive feedback on their performance.
“When we do this, we would ask them what we can do better … we are always open to change and that’s where (the company and trainees) can work together.”
It is also important that trainees learn new skills through the course of the traineeship, as the firm has a long-term approach to recruiting trainees, said Captain Peter.
“We always try to encourage (full-time conversions) because it is important to create this generational understanding ... to have a sustainable approach of making sure the (talent) pipeline is always relevant,” he said.
Mr Luqmanul said that he is eager to learn more in the remainder of his nine-month stint.
“In a traineeship, you’re starting from the bottom, so you learn everything and have hands-on experience, then slowly make your way up,” he said.
STEPPING INTO UNFAMILIAR WORLD OF BANKING
Unlike Mr Luqmanul who was able to enter his preferred industry through a traineeship, Mr Lim Jia Khee, 26, had to settle for one that he was not familiar with as his preferred industries had been badly affected by the pandemic.
A business graduate from the Singapore Management University, Mr Lim specialises in operations management and data analytics. He had set his sights on joining the built environment or manufacturing industry, where he had his internships previously.
“When COVID-19 hit, most of these firms were freezing their hiring,” he said. Out of about 50 job applications he sent, only a handful of firms responded.
He then started looking at industries that were doing well to increase his chances of getting hired. That was when he came across a data analyst traineeship offered by the United Overseas Bank (UOB).
“The finance sector is doing well, and I think that is where I will see myself heading in the next year,” he said. “UOB was looking to move into the digital and Internet space which meant there were quite a few opportunities on the Government career portals, so I just jumped on it.”
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Mr Lim is now part of a team that ensures that bank data is accurate and complete for internal reporting.
Having started his traineeship in mid-July, Mr Lim is paired with a full-time employee who will guide him if he faces any difficulties. He also has weekly engagements with his supervisor, who will check in on his learning progress.
While the technical aspects of handling data were among the skills he had learnt in the university, the traineeship has enabled him to pick up “soft skills”, Mr Lim said.
This includes having the right people skills to deal with different stakeholders when asking for data or files, or knowing how to communicate with the bank's senior management.
Apart from Mr Lim, the bank has hired about 80 trainees so far under the programme, and is looking into expanding the number to 240 in the next few months, said Mr Dean Tong, head of Group HR at UOB.
“Many of them (will be) eligible to join us in our full-time programme if they actually perform and if there’s a need in the areas that they’re working in,” said Mr Tong. “So we are using this also as a platform to identify talent.”
The bank will not need to “go out to the market to look for more (hires)” if the trainees perform well, he reiterated.
Beyond his traineeship stint, Mr Lim hopes that the skills which he has acquired will enable him to get a permanent job that is “preferably in finance” post-pandemic.
“I hope to convert to full-time given the chance, but if I don’t, I’ll look for another role (related) to the skill sets that I’m currently picking up,” he said.
Nevertheless, he is also open to other opportunities and industries where his new skill sets might not be relevant.
“I don’t really have a definite plan, but I will adapt to what happens in the market in the future,” he added.
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WHY IS THE GOVERNMENT DOING THIS?
The Government’s plan to nudge more people to take up traineeships and attachments is part of what Mrs Teo had previously described as a new approach to expand employment opportunities in the face of a weak job market.
Since the SGUnited Traineeships programme was first announced, some fresh jobseekers have highlighted several burning questions on their minds, given the novelty of the Government’s approach amid the crisis of a generation.
In a Facebook post in June, Mrs Teo said the Government started the traineeship programme to help young graduates by “opening up more and new pathways to jobs”.
“While these traineeships may not be the same as a job, they will help young graduates to build networks, skill sets and resumes,” she said. “This in turn will stand them in good stead in landing a permanent role when the hiring demand picks up.”
Mr Adrian Choo, founder of career consulting company Career Agility International, noted that the programme sought to prevent a “lost generation of young graduates”.
A similar situation occurred during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, when large firms were cutting back on the hiring of fresh graduates.
“What happened in later years was that in about 2006 to 2008, (the companies) realised that they didn’t have enough talent pipeline for their middle management, and therefore there was a huge hunt for talent, and a talent shortage in the market,” Mr Choo said.
“The Government is now trying to prevent that from happening by not wasting local talents by giving them exposure and sponsoring them in jobs, rather than having these fresh graduates go into jobs such as food delivery for two to three years (that) they will never get back again.”
HOW IS A TRAINEESHIP DIFFERENT FROM AN INTERNSHIP?
Traineeships should be seen as a “real job” and not as an internship, said Mr Choo.
“These are real jobs at real levels … it’s a job in itself that is sponsored by the Government,” he added.
Indeed, the trainees interviewed said they have full-time workloads and working hours. They said they do not see their role as transitory, but one where they can learn long-term skills to boost their employability.
Employers also said the traineeships are designed with the long-term goal of nurturing a talent pipeline.
Novocall’s Mr Huang said: “(A traineeship) is slightly different from internships. Some of our interns don’t have full-time responsibilities, but those that we want to groom into full-timers, we will start to provide them with full-time responsibilities.”
Agreeing, Mr Lim of Yang Kee Logistics said that the firm is “not just looking for someone to fit the one-year traineeship programme, but we are looking for someone who can come on board with us, learn on the job as well as continue with us after the traineeship programme.”
Mr Choo reiterated that trainees should not see a traineeship stint as a “short-term experiment” as they would with an internship.
“Learn as much as you can, excel as much as you can in the job so that you get retained … The strategy for the trainee going through the programme should be to learn and shine,” he said.
HOW MUCH CAN TRAINEES EARN?
For those with a university degree or above, their estimated monthly training allowance would range between S$1,800 and S$2,500.
Those with a polytechnic diploma or professional qualification can expect to receive S$1,300 to S$1,800 a month. The range is between S$1,100 and S$1,500 a month for those who graduated from ITE or its equivalent.
The estimated monthly training allowance for each qualification is pegged to 50 to 70 per cent of median starting salaries, and the Government will co-fund 80 per cent of it.
What workplace protection is there for trainees since they are not considered full-time employees?
While jobseekers should take their traineeships seriously in a bid to get retained, they should also be aware that the stints are “slightly different” from full-time employment, said Ms Carmen Wee, a veteran human resources practitioner.
“It’s just for a period of time that they will train you, pay you, and that’s it, with no promise of future employment,” she said. “That does not affect any intention if the company wants to hire after the traineeship ends, but it’s not a guarantee.”
For example, in a frequently asked questions page on the programme, it is stated that “there is no employment relationship between the trainees and host organisations”.
This means that the organisations do not have to make Central Provident Fund contributions. They are also not obliged to offer employee benefits such as annual and sick leave to trainees.
Nevertheless, four firms interviewed said they provide the same amount of sick and annual leave to their trainees as they do for full-time employees, despite not being obliged to do so.
Amid the ongoing pandemic, the MOM and WSG spokespersons said that the Manpower Ministry takes “a serious view of trainees reporting to work sick”.
“As a good practice, host organisations should provide a minimum of seven days of paid annual leave and seven days of paid medical leave per year of traineeship,” they said.
WSG’s programme partner, the Singapore Business Federation (SBF), will conduct random monthly check-ins with host organisations “to ensure the well-being of the trainees”. Trainees can also contact SBF to highlight any issues faced during the traineeship, the spokespersons added.
In addition, to protect trainees against work injury, WSG has also worked with SBF and the host organisations to provide trainees with fully-funded insurance coverage in line with the requirements under the Work Injury Compensation Act.
What’s preventing companies from abusing the programme by using trainees as cheap labour?
Responding to concerns that firms may use the traineeship programme as a substitute for full-time employment, the MOM and WSG spokespersons said that applications by host organisations to offer traineeship positions are “scrutinised under a rigorous screening process”.
It requires these organisations to declare if they had undergone retrenchments and various cost-cutting measures “at multiple stages of their application”.
SBF will also conduct further checks to “ensure that no substitutive hiring had taken place before the traineeships are accorded”, the spokespersons said.
Mr Choo felt that it is unlikely companies would abuse the programme. “It is bad for employer branding and I don’t think companies would misbehave in that way,” he said.
Nevertheless, to prevent companies from potentially abusing the programme, Mr Choo suggested a “feedback mechanism” in the form of an exit interview should trainees resign from the firms.
Ms Wee advised companies not to see the employer-trainee relationship as a “transactional one”.
“They are a very important resource for the future workforce, (and) treating them with a lot of respect and dignity and also investing in them is an important first step for (firms),” she said.
What happens to trainees if they are not converted to full-time roles after their traineeship?
The MOM and WSG spokespersons said that for trainees who are not placed into full-time positions, the traineeship experience will “still put them in better stead to secure jobs with other employers”.
They reiterated that the Government will also continue to “support them and walk with them in their job search” through career matching services provided by WSG and the National Trades Union Congress’ Employment and Employability Institute.
The newly-launched Jobs Growth Incentive (JGI) scheme - announced by Mr Heng earlier this month - will also support businesses to expand and grow their local headcounts over the next six months, the spokespersons added. “This will also help spur hiring of trainees into full-time jobs.”
Ms Wee cautioned that given the tough economic situation, trainees should not expect firms to convert them to full-time staff, and they must be prepared to find other sources of employment when their traineeships end.
“Nothing is guaranteed, and the earlier the graduates realise this the better,” she said.
She added: “If at the end of the (traineeship), there is no permanent employment, they can go on to the next phase of their career search journey... they should adopt a very proactive and growth-oriented attitude and learn as much as possible, but be prepared to be agile and flexible to find the next employment.”
The main takeaways from any traineeship would be to gain “incremental skills” and “develop a mindset that one has to be employable throughout their whole career journey”, she said.
To find out more information about the national traineeship programme, visit https://www.wsg.gov.sg/SGUnitedTraineeships-Trainees.html