Look wood's done it

Look wood's done it
Printing veteran Lee Kok Kee may have taken a big pay cut, but the 53-year-old says he has a lot of satisfaction from working with his hands.

Ms Nurulhuda Izyan Mohamad Hafiz hardly fits the conventional profile of a carpenter.

Not only does the 26-year-old have a bachelor's degree in European studies from the National University of Singapore, but she is also conversant in French and German and scored a cushy gig as a communications officer at the Swiss Embassy in Singapore right after her graduation in 2012.

Still, it took only 11/2 years for Ms Nurulhuda to realise that the nine-to-five grind was not for her.

"Even though I had a good job that was aligned to my degree, I wanted to do something that was more hands-on and creative," she says.

Itching to try something that would break the monotony of a desk job, she jumped at the opportunity to sign up for the Creative Craftsmen Apprenticeship Programme after coming across it on a blog.

Aiming to pique local interest in furniture carpentry, the scheme was jointly started in February last year by the Singapore Furniture Industries Council, National Trades Union Congress' Employment and Employability Institute, Singapore Workforce Development Agency and Spring Singapore.

It is a breath of fresh air for the trades-based industry which, despite being valued at $6.24 billion last year, has battled a dearth of new young talent and an influx of foreign workers from Malaysia and China.

Aiming to have 180 Singaporean graduates over two years, the scheme, which is open only to Singapore citizens, is an opportunity for newbies such as Ms Nurulhuda to learn the skills needed to make a career switch into carpentry.

Since last February, 43 students between the ages of 21 and 66 have already signed up.

Students in the programme are paired with employers from the onset and after completing six months of practical and theory training at the 4,500 sq ft campus located at Yishun Industrial Park, they go on to work with their employers for another six months to complete their course.

The starting pay for students is also guaranteed at $1,500 a month, which can increase to $3,000 as their skills improve.

The best part? The course fees and salaries are completely borne by employers, making the programme essentially free for students.

The 38 companies that have pledged to participate in the programme get a 90 per cent course fee subsidy and 70 per cent salary support subsidy from the $3.5-million fund backing the project.

It is perhaps why more skilled workers, women and young Singaporeans are taking a stab at picking up the trade.

Among Ms Nurulhuda's 19 classmates are a finance professional, a hockey coach, a golf executive and a manager at an IT firm - all of whom have decided to make a career change to take up carpentry.

One of those who made a radical switch is Mr Lee Kok Kee, who left his job as a production manager in the printing business after 30 years to join the programme.

The 53-year-old married father of two says of his decision: "Not having to pay fees and getting guaranteed employ- ment turned out to be a great incentive to leave a sunset industry like printing and try out carpentry."

And even though he had a lot to lose, including managerial responsibilities over a team of 30 and a pay that was two-thirds more than that of a carpenter's, he is happy with his decision.

"It's been a steep learning curve, but working with my hands gives me lots of satisfaction and, thankfully, my family has been very supportive of my decision."

Similar sentiments were echoed by 28-year-old Pang Choon Kiat, who left a safety engineering position at an international oil services company, Halliburton, after four years to join the programme.

"My father owns a carpentry business and wanted to sign up for the programme as a partner. But after hearing about it, I was so intrigued that I ended up signing myself up as a student," he says with a laugh.

Mr Pang will now work at his father's 35-year-old business after completing his initial six months of training.

He says of the experience: "I won't lie - it is incredibly tough and there were times I didn't think I'd be able to do it. But as with any trade, it gets better with practice and now I'm really enjoying myself."

The self-confessed once "unartistic" guy also admits that he is now more observant of interesting furniture pieces and always keeps an eye out for unique design elements.

"I'm inspired by good design and aim to bring those skills to the table to expand my family business," he says earnestly.

"Giving tradesmen the space to cultivate creativity is what I think will ultimately help the carpentry industry reinvent itself."


This article was first published on May 24, 2015.
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